Lexington, VA • Friday, February 15, 2008
Although public attention to the Hurricane Katrina disaster has long since given way to concerns about the economy and the home mortgage crisis, hundreds of volunteers and organizations continue the difficult work of rebuilding the gulf coast region.
Students at the Washington and Lee University School of Law have joined this effort, providing a number of legal services as part of a new practicum course designed to expose students to real and pressing legal issues in a work environment reflective of the actual practice of law. Thus far, research projects have included the viability of language access ordinances, as well as several issues involving land ownership and housing.
W&L students also are planning their second spring break service trip to the gulf region to provide legal aid and manual labor to the many organizations still working on the recovery effort. In fact, it was last year's spring break service trip that helped create momentum for the practicum.
"Many of us who went on the service trip last year wanted to keep helping, so we investigated the possibility of a long-distance research project," said Diane Meier, '08L.
Meier turned for advice to Loyola Law School Professor Bill Quigley, who spoke at last year's Hurricane Katrina symposium sponsored by the Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, where Meier now serves as editor-in-chief. Professor Quigley, along with Loyola Law Clinic staff attorney Davida Finger, helped connect W&L law students with organizations in need of legal aid, and W&L professors Mary Natkin and Denis Brion worked to establish the course in the curriculum.
Currently, five students are enrolled in the Hurricane Practicum, including Meier, Brad Henson '09L, Bobby Littlehale '08L, Jennifer Lin '09L, and Elizabeth Yost '09L. Simulating the collaborative nature of actual legal practice, the students have worked as a unit and in pairs on specific projects.
The students' first project involved exploring the viability of a language access act for a New Orleans community group. Such an act would require emergency notices and other government announcements to be communicated in multiple languages. Students looked at similar ordinances established in cities with large immigrant populations and also analyzed state and federal statutes before making recommendations as the community group moves forward.
Other ongoing projects involve land and housing issues brought on by Katrina. In one project, students are preparing a handbook that helps out-of-state attorneys understand how succession of title works in Louisiana. In New Orleans, it is not uncommon for houses to pass from generation to generation without official documentation of the change in title. When Hurricane Katrina flooded the city, it destroyed any personal papers documenting land ownership along with the houses. The handbook will help the visiting lawyers clear title and establish ownership so families can request relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to rebuild.
Another project partners the students with the Mississippi Center for Justice in exploring whether cities in the gulf region who want FEMA trailers removed can still receive FEMA money after claiming the housing crisis is at an end. The FEMA trailers remain home to many poor people displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"Courses like this are important for several reasons," noted Natkin. "Asking students to work together creates a work environment where assumptions are challenged and feedback is ongoing, ultimately making the work product better."
"And, of course, the work is important," added Natkin. "These projects are part of the larger goal of making sure the working class can return and not have New Orleans recreated as a city of privilege."
Elizabeth Yost, one of the students participating in the practicum, echoes these sentiments. "I am interested in how the law affects real people in their day to day lives, and this program is definitely giving us the opportunity to explore different areas of the law that actually matter to people."