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

Monday, March 14, 2011

Having completed only one semester of law school, I was a little overwhelmed when I received my first assignment from the supervising attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. He specialized in bankruptcy cases, breach of contract suits where contractors would be paid to repair someone’s house, but never do the work, and property tax issues–things I had not even taken a class on. I began the week thinking I did not have the skills necessary to make any substantive progress on these cases, but I quickly learned that even though I had no formal training in these areas, I had already begun thinking like a lawyer. As a result, I found that I was able to make a substantial contribution to the cases that were assigned to me during the week. I grew up thinking lawyers always had an answer, but this experience showed me that they do not always know what to do right away. The legal profession requires creative thinking and problem solving to novel and unfamiliar problems.

My experience in New Orleans also showed me the limitations of the legal system and the legal profession. My supervising attorney worked in an office building with about 30 other attorneys. He told me how some days the office’s entire telephone system went down as a result of the damaged infrastructure caused by Hurricane Katrina, making it difficult or impossible to progress on any of the cases that required conversations with clients or other attorneys. He had taken on so many cases that many of them were in danger of expiring because of a statute of limitations. He also told me that he did not even have time to make any progress difficult cases because he had so many “little fires” to put out in other cases. He was very grateful for the assistance pro bono groups offered his office. Without us, many of his cases would have been forgotten. Being a firm believer that every person should have his or her day in court, it was really disappointing to turn away clients simply because they did not have enough evidence to make a case.

Spending a week in New Orleans seeing the “real” side of the legal profession was truly an eye-opening experience for someone who has been immersed in the academic side of it since August. This experience showed me that I really could make a difference in peoples’ lives, even with my limited legal training. It showed me that the legal aid and pro bono service are valuable resources to those who are not wealthy enough to afford high-priced attorneys. But it also showed me that the system has limitations. Being a part of pro bono is truly a rewarding experience because I am able to make the legal system more available to those who would otherwise be excluded from relief or assistance.

Adam Lanier


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