O Lawyer, Where Art Thou?
How law firms are failing New Orleans.
But just as the fire department doesn't create a spreadsheet while the house goes down in flames, in New Orleans, there's no legal master plan and almost no one to oversee the volunteer defense lawyers. Orleans Parish lost almost all of its public defenders after Katrina, plummeting from about 40 to fewer than 10. In 2006, a Department of Justice report obtained by the Los Angeles Times recommended 70 full-time public defenders. With the city in a perpetual state of legal panic, no one has time to package up projects for firms. Also, since it takes weeks to learn how to navigate the dysfunctional system, volunteers ideally need to stay for several months. Firms are willing to send down lawyers for a week or two, but they won't give up a client-serving body for months on end.
In other cities with more developed pro bono infrastructures, nonprofit middlemen negotiate this kind of culture clash. For example, nonprofit groups like New York Lawyers for the Public Interest coordinated much of the legal response after 9/11. But in the Gulf Coast, there's no one to play mediator and no great pro bono force to spearhead a shift from civil to criminal work.
So, what can a Creole-loving firm do? Taking the small cases may be tough for firms, but challenging the entire system wouldn't be. Firms are great at impact litigation. Be it a suit against a city, state, or large public institution, firms have pushed the law forward in amazing ways through large-scale litigation. They can do the same in New Orleans. The current system raises some serious constitutional questions. For starters, poor litigants get no representation between the time bail is set and weeks later when the district attorney's office decides whether it will take the case to trial. Public defenders are funded largely by court fees—money paid by the indigent defendants themselves when they're convicted. Two New Orleans criminal court judges found the funding system unconstitutional, but the case has yet to be presented before the Supreme Court.
Another way firms could help: They can fund a New Orleans pro bono coordinator, in the way that they regularly sponsor public interest fellowships. The coordinator could work full time packaging the projects and rallying the law firm troops. The firms could get projects suited to them, and the city's defense lawyers could spend their time doing their jobs. The cavalry, it seems, might just need a good scout.
Lisa Lerer writes for the Politico.
Photograph of the New Orleans courthouse by Alex Brandon/AP.