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Support Programs Spring from Post-Katrina New Orleans

By Kent A. Lambert, Litigation News Associate Editor – October 14, 2009

The message went out at 6:18 p.m. on a Saturday evening: a young attorney had been diagnosed with a devastating illness and referred for treatment to a hospital hundreds of miles away in an unfamiliar city. Within mere days, the lawyer was put in contact with a couple living near the hospital—complete strangers until then—who stood ready to come to the young lawyer’s aid with housing and other necessities over the course of an anticipated four-month treatment regimen.

Bridging the gap between these former strangers is a network of 4,500 volunteers marshaled through the vision and tireless efforts of U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey of the Eastern District of Louisiana. Known as SOLACE, an acronym for Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel All Concern Encouraged, the all-volunteer program has provided comfort and support to more than 500 individuals and families throughout Louisiana since its inception in 2002.

“SOLACE has profoundly touched the lives of many legal professionals and their families,” says Nancy S. Degan, New Orleans, member of the ABA Section of Litigation Ideas and Innovations Committee.

“The bigger truth is that we are all better off thanks to the bridges Judge Zainey has helped erect to unite the thousands of legal professionals in our area for the good of those in need,” Degan says.

The services provided by SOLACE vary by the situation: donations of office furniture and equipment for a solo practitioner whose office was lost in hurricane Katrina; boarding for a pet while a lawyer received extended medical treatments out of state; housekeeping during an extended illnesses; and the coordination of blood drives to give just a few examples.

Amazingly, despite the demands of a full docket, Judge Zainey hasn’t been content with spearheading the SOLACE program. In 2004, Judge Zainey founded the HELP program (Homeless Experience Legal Protection) to provide free legal services to homeless persons in New Orleans. Through partnerships with local law firms and attorneys, the HELP program provides volunteer lawyers and notaries at local homeless shelters and support centers.

Today, over 450 New Orleans area attorneys and notaries are volunteering their services at multiple locations in New Orleans on a year-around basis. More, with the support of partnering law firms, HELP programs have now been organized in 15 other cities, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, Nashville, Birmingham, and Baton Rouge.

Judge Zainey’s efforts with the HELP program fill an important need, connecting practitioners with those most in need of their help.

“Lawyers want to help those in their own communities, and programs that help to match lawyers with the urgent and growing pro bono need in their local communities are tremendously helpful,” observes Robert L. Rothman, Atlanta, immediate past-chair of the Section of Litigation and current cochair of the Section’s Access to Justice Committee. 

Judge Zainey himself deflects the success of the SOLACE and HELP programs to the professional volunteers and community advocates who make them possible. He stresses that HELP is intended to be complimentary of existing legal aid services and programs, and sees great potential for expanded and new programs around the country.

“We have just opened up a new HELP program in Pittsburgh within the last two weeks, and already we have volunteers from nine different law firms committed to the program,” he says.

The expansion of HELP to other cities has hidden benefits, Judge Zainey adds.

“Many homeless persons find themselves in places far removed from the source of their legal issues or concerns. The growing network of HELP volunteers means we have better chances of getting even remote issues resolved,” he says.

The opportunity to give back is not just limited to attorneys. Law students have volunteered with HELP to assist with collecting records needed for benefits claims, completing forms and applications, and other jobs, usually with immediate access to volunteer lawyers should any legal concerns arise.

“It’s a win-win proposition,” says Judge Zainey. “The students get exposed to attorneys and real world situations while providing great service for the community,” he says.

Keywords: Legal aid, pro bono


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