Post Date: February 3, 2006

This January, twenty-five Harvard Law School students volunteered a week of their winter break to provide free legal and humanitarian assistance to area residents and community organizations in Southeast Louisiana. Seven students also worked on Katrina relief with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, DC and on the Gulf Coast.

“There is a huge backlog of legal issues left over from the hurricanes,” said Ehren Brav, a 2L. “Often, the challenge is just finding our clients. I spoke to New Orleans residents in Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma and Mississippi. They’re constantly on the move between residences and cities.”

Only about 30 percent of people displaced by the hurricanes have returned, but the legal aid community is bracing for a possibly massive return of residents once the FEMA grants begin to dry up.

In addition to this housing work, the students conducted outreach to hotels, assisted intake at FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers, interviewed immigrant laborers and analyzed data on how prisoners in the Louisiana criminal justice system have been affected. The students worked with a range of national and local organizations that provide free legal services, including New Orleans Legal Assistance, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and a public defender in Alexandria. Several students also worked with Common Ground, a grassroots non-profit group providing humanitarian support to returning residents.

“From the first day of school in September, our students were so eager to contribute to hurricane relief efforts, but organizations in the Gulf Coast weren’t yet ready to use volunteers,” said Lee Branson, assistant director for pro bono programs at HLS. “Students organized fundraisers in the fall, but the opportunity for them to use their legal skills in hands-on work this January was what they had really been waiting for.”

The law school funded airfare and transportation for the trip, while students stayed in free housing provided by churches, staff of collaborating organizations, and friends.

The trips were coordinated by the HLS Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs and the Student Hurricane Network, a student-run coalition that works to involve law students from across the country in efforts to provide long-term legal aid and disaster relief to the Gulf region, through service trips, research projects and fundraising. In addition to 33 students from Harvard Law School, nearly 200 law students from 50 schools across the country spent a part of their winter break in Mississippi and Louisiana.