For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Monday, March 14, 2011

From Christmas to New Orleans...

Within one week, I went from being consumed by Christmas, to New Years plans, to arriving in New Orleans; where quickly my group was integrated into the Orleans Public Defender’s Office (OPD). The first question of the day: What are three things you would think about while being arrested and what do you think our clients would think about? Break was officially “over” and it was time to begin my first pro bono experience. I was slightly nervous about what I would actually be able to contribute, having just finished my first semester of 1L year. Very soon after meeting with our supervising attorneys, the nerves were gone and we excitedly began tackling our list of work in hopes of freeing up our attorneys for other meaningful assignments. The office was lacking resources and very understaffed, not to mention they had just announced a hiring freeze due to budget constraints. They were visibly appreciative to have law students willing to volunteer to help during each of our winter breaks. While I knew that Katrina, the economy, and the gulf oil crisis had exasperated conditions, especially for those in poverty, I had no idea how in need this city really was. I am appreciative that I could contribute something, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Each attorney could barely manage their massive caseload and it was obvious how much they appreciated all of the law students volunteering. Due to the lack of resources, both physically and monetarily, it is a constant challenge for the attorneys to attempt to help all the clients in need to the potential that they could.

There existed an enormous ability for all of us; regardless of what year we were, to make a significant contribution to helping out with the workload in the office. One example of this was figuring out how to contact a parole officer so that we could end the client’s previous probation so that they could be released from jail and able to start their next probation. Even just helping with paper work, organizing files, researching specific issues, and providing them with our findings to help them shape their cases seemed to be a meaningful contribution. In another case, at the 11th hour, the office received over thirty hours of jail tapes that they needed to go through in order to properly prepare for the trial that was to happen the next day. The attorney recruited several of us, quickly briefed us on the case, and then instructed us to listen for key “buzz” words that would help him prepare his defense. As with many of our experiences volunteering in the Orleans Public Defender’s office, it was truly a unique situation to be able to see your work instantaneously being used to help the attorney’s client and case. In many of these situations the work would not have been able to be completed if not for the extra resources that the volunteers provided.

I feel confident that our work allowed the supervising attorneys to be able to get to more cases and/or be able to give more of their focus to existing ones. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to volunteer with the Pro Bono group in New Orleans and feel confident that our work, along with the other volunteers, contributed to helping the fight for justice and contributing to provide a better quality of life for the people of New Orleans. The attorneys are an inspiration, as they have truly dedicated themselves to bettering the community and fighting for justice, regardless of socio-economic status. They are visibly restoring justice and public safety within the city.

Each year the NOLA Pro Bono winter break group truly helps the OPD in furthering their mission to: “provide each eligible client with client-centered legal representation of the highest quality – zealous, conscientious, caring, professional, ethical and skilled – whether in criminal, juvenile or municipal/traffic court.”

Amy Bruch


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