Students Gain Valuable On-the-Ground Experience in New Orleans

Students Successfully Acquire Legal and Non-Legal Hours for the Pro Bono Honors Pledge

For the past seven years, AUWCL has been sending a group of 30 to 40 students to New Orleans for an alternative winter break.  While in New Orleans, the students provide pro bono legal services and help rebuild in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Each year, members of the student group Action for Human Rights organize the trip, obtain legal placements, and locate volunteer rebuilding opportunities for attendees.  They also secure housing and work with members of the Student Bar Association to fund the trip. 

This year, the students arrived in New Orleans Dec. 30 and started working on New Year’s Eve. For the first two days, they teamed up with St. Bernard’s Project to rebuild the home of a woman named Sandy who had been living in a trailer in her front yard for seven years after her house was severely damaged by Katrina. Rachel Kaplan, a 3L, said it felt good to know that she played a part in making someone’s home livable again. 

“We spent the days painting the entire outside of the house,” said Kaplan.  “We also spackled most of the walls and whatever else needed plastering.  Sandy was so grateful for all of our help that she gave us all necklaces to thank us.  It was really nice to see the person behind the house, and to know that she was going to move into a home after seven years.”

“This may be the only time that the students will be exposed to people living in poverty, and the work can remind them of why they went to law school.”

After two days of rebuilding work, the students went to different parts of the city to perform pro bono legal services.  Julie Dabrowski, a 2L who helped organize the trip, worked at AIDS Law of Louisiana, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to people living with HIV/AIDS.  While she was there, she conducted legal research about HIV at-home testing kits, wrote an article for one of the organization’s publications, and worked directly with clients.

“Working at AIDS Law and getting to meet some of the clients there gave me a better understanding and a holistic view of what people are going through,” said Dabrowski.  “I learned about how all of their personal and medical issues came together to create various legal problems.  I think being able to go out there and actually see how it works is really beneficial, particularly for people who want to work in the public interest.”

In 2005, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast region, AUWCL students began going to New Orleans for the Alternative Winter Break to assist with recovery efforts. Lauren Bartlett ’07, Local Human Rights Lawyering Project Director at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, was one of the people who organized the first trip.  As a way to help those who had been affected by the storm, she and others raised money and went to New Orleans and Mississippi to provide assistance.  The tradition lives on, and now each year more than 30 AUWCL students go to New Orleans to rebuild and provide legal assistance. 

“I think that it is a good setup where you can go to a city that is fun, and has a big need for volunteers,” said Bartlett.  “They are used to having volunteers, they know how to use them, and they know how to make them feel useful.  This may be the only time that the students will be exposed to people living in poverty, and the work can remind them of why they went to law school and why law is a useful tool for people who are not as privileged.”  

“I think it helped the people feel like they haven’t been forgotten about.  I think it’s a huge success.”

Along with the daily work schedule, students had the opportunity to attend other professional development events.  One of events included the Alumni, Faculty, Students and Friends Reception where the students had the opportunity to interact with Dean Claudio Grossman, several professors from the law school, and AUWCL alumni.  The law school group also shared the latest news about the trip through a blog and frequent Twitter posts.

Rui Yang, an LL.M. student from China with a dual specialization in international business law and international commercial arbitration, said she thinks that the work she did really made an impact. 

“I feel very satisfied because we came here and offered our help to the community.  I think it helped the people feel like they haven’t been forgotten about.  I think it’s a huge success.”

###