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

Monday, March 14, 2011

When I first learned about the New Orleans Pro Bono Trip, I knew I wanted to attend. With family from Louisiana, the state and area have always had a big impact in my life. I first traveled to New Orleans proper in 2006 for a service trip, one year after Hurricane Katrina. That trip introduced me to issues that has followed the city and cultivated my interest in continuing to rebuild New Orleans. In the spring of 2006, I built houses with my university. This past week, I had the opportunity to use my legal education to assist the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD).

When we first arrived in the Orleans Public Defenders office, we met other eager law students from American University and CUNY Law. While we do not attend the same law school, working with law students for around the country gave me a great supportive feeling. It is wonderful to know that law students around the world are working to help rebuild and support communities worldwide. After meeting our colleagues, we had orientation where we learned about the needs of our clients. Our supervising attorney had each student put themselves in the place of a client. He had us answer the questions, what would you do if you were arrested and what do you think the clients are concerned with? As someone whose father is a police officer, I never really considered what I would think or would do, if I were ever arrested. The questions that seemed so simple made me put myself in the position of my client and understand where he or she is coming from.

After orientation, we received or assignments and met our supervising attorneys. I worked with a group of three students and we had two supervising attorneys. Going in the office as a first year student, I didn’t quite feel equipped to handle these cases on my own. But I realized that I do have the tools to solve essential problems. Additionally, with the help of my group mates, we were able to draft unfamiliar documents, investigate case elements, interview our client, and help our attorneys prepare for hearings. Working at the Orleans Public Defenders office was an invaluable experience. I was able get involved in active cases and have a direct role in preparing for hearings, all things I didn’t except to do as a first year student. One of the most beneficial aspects of the trip was the opportunity to interact with the attorneys. Being able to watch and live their everyday life helped me gain a greater understanding of the life of a public defender.

Having worked for a year with county’s District Attorney’s office prior to starting law student, this was a great educational experience. I now realize that both public defenders and district attorneys have unique challenges. Overall, this trip exposed me to the life of a public defender and helped me gain a greater understanding of the criminal law system. I am very grateful for the experience and the opportunity to work with the OPD. The OPD are continuing to rebuild and providing an important resource; they are providing access to legal services and fair trial.

-Yolanda Fair


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