A Just Cause
For 35 years, the Pro Bono Project has been helping at-need New Orleanians with civil court cases
For the uninitiated, stepping into a court room with its strict mores and peculiar lexicon can be a very intimidating environment for the average person, much less for those with limited funds and a pressing need. While legal representation for criminal defendants is constitutionally guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, there is no right to counsel for civil matters. In Louisiana, 70 percent of cases in civil court have one or more party that is self-represented, according to C.C. Kahr, executive director of The Pro Bono Project, a New Orleans-based organization that provides free civil legal services across southeast Louisiana.
“People are going to civil court and representing themselves. Experiencing those proceedings and trying to follow and understand the legal language can be incredibly daunting,” she said. “The impact of these cases can have a profound effect on people’s lives.
“It’s almost always economics, money that dictates that decision. And, certainly, there are some legal issues where we can help the self-represented litigant. For example, in making a change that doesn’t require complicated forms or proceedings. But the goal should be for everyone who has a legal need, who can’t afford an attorney, to have access to counsel. When they do, they do better. They’re going to have a more successful outcome.”
While the Pro Bono Project has existed for 35 years, Kahr says one of their continuing challenges is “to make sure that people know we exist and there are solutions to the problems that they’re facing.”
A needed service
The Pro Bono Project is a non-profit, tax-exempt, 501(c) (3) legal entity that draws on the local legal community to provide the underserved free legal services in civil cases. The Project only accepts clients who meet federal income and asset eligibility requirements. Cases are screened for legal merit and selected based on their volunteers’ talent and time availability. It does not assist with criminal matters, legal emergencies, personal injury, or contested custody or successions.
The Project’s case load includes family law matters, like divorces, custody agreements, name changes, and adoptions; property issues related to successions and estate planning, proof of title, contractor litigation, and consumer complaints; debt issues, and additional matters.
Attorneys, paralegals, law students, and others give their time to help people who would not otherwise have any legal advice to help them with their case. Last year, the Pro Bono Project’s nearly 2,000 volunteers worked on about 5,000 cases. Despite that amazing effort, Kahr says the reality is the case load could – and should – be much heavier.
“In Louisiana, 40 percent of our citizens earned an income level that is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines,” she said. “[Many] people in this state are eligible for legal assistance. These are people who need help navigating their divorce, adopting a child, writing a will, challenging an insurance claim, declaring bankruptcy or communicating with creditors, or working on a succession on a family home. All of these are civil matters where the public doesn’t have a right to representation, but that’s where we step in and help.”
The goal should be for everyone who has a legal need, who can’t afford an attorney, to have access to counsel. When they do, they do better. They’re going to have a more successful outcome.”
With Ida’s destruction and the looming end of the pandemic eviction moratorium causing thousands to be at risk of being put out of their homes, Kahr expects the organization’s cases involving residential rental issues to swell.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and renters need assistance when they’re threatened with eviction. They need representation.”
Through the COVID-19 pandemic and in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the Pro Bono Project has kept its doors open, continuing to serve those in need.
“I’m really proud of that,” Kahr said. “We were able to very quickly adjust to the new reality because with the pandemic and natural disaster, the needs of the community dramatically increased. I think that hurricane preparedness taught us how to very seamlessly transition to remote work during the pandemic. It hasn’t been a time to kind of sit back. It’s a time to energize and be creative.”
Small, but mighty
Created by The Louisiana Bar Foundation in 1986, the Pro Bono Project is the largest free legal program in the state, having grown from originally serving clients in New Orleans to providing representation and advice to those in Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, and Washington parishes.
It was initially funded by the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, a seed grant from the American Bar Association, and in-kind services from the Louisiana Bar Foundation. Today, it is funded with assistance from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services; a Louisiana Bar Foundation grant; Title III funds; corporate, foundation, and individual donations, and an annual fundraiser, The Justice for All Ball.
Kahr credits the Project’s employees and volunteers for the organization’s success.
“We’re small, but mighty,” she said. “We have seven full-time staff people, including myself. What they do is simply amazing.”
The staff is responsible for recruiting and retaining legal volunteers and donors. They often become subject matter experts in certain aspects as they train and mentor attorneys, especially those who are working on cases outside of their expertise, so they have a good experience when they volunteer. In addition, they also have face-to-face contact with the Project’s clients as they process their cases.
Kahr said one of the most impressive aspects of the Project is the volume of volunteers the organization can depend on within the Greater New Orleans legal community.
“It’s an incredibly impressive number,” she said. “It really makes our work a bit easier because they are quick to say yes when we make the call asking to connect them with our clients. There’s a culture of mutual aid here that creates a passion among legal professionals in this community to look out for their neighbors.
“It’s so fulfilling to lead an organization with such dedicated and hardworking supporters. These are individuals who have a full calendar of professional and personal commitments. These men and women from both big and small firms are always quick to answer our call. Their leadership, their sacrifice, really makes it very rewarding. We help people take a step toward improving their lives and help to create a more equitable society. It’s hard not to feel really good about what you do when you through your work you help.”
In Louisiana, 70% of cases in civil court have one or more party that is self-represented.
Last year, the Pro Bono Project’s nearly 2,000 volunteers worked on about 5,000 cases.
What types of cases does The Pro Bono Project handle?
- General Civil Law Issues
- Employment and Wage Issues
- Wills, Estates and Successions
- Family Safety and Stability
- Tenant and Homeowner’s Rights
- Contractor Fraud
- Consumer Rights and Contracts
- Intra-family Adoption and Visitation
- Uncontested Divorce
- Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare problems
- Name changes for both adults and children
- Medical power of attorney
- And more
Parishes covered: Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, and Washington
Of all the cases she’s been involved with at the Pro Bono Project, Kahr said one of her favorites involved a senior citizen in Jefferson Parish who wanted to sell her home and move to Georgia so that she could be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. Her house was passed to her when her parents died, but she didn’t have clear title. Distraught that she wouldn’t be able to sell the property and move closer to her family, she brought her case to one of the Pro Bono Project’s legal clinics, held at 10 senior centers across the parish. There she met Alexis Clay, a successions attorney, who was able to collect the relevant documents needed to probate her parents’ wills and gain legal possession of the home. That allowed her to list the house and move closer to a familial support system.
Le bon temps
Kahr certainly has a serious, professional job, but she’s not afraid to have a good time. She’s quick to celebrate a job well done. She grew up in California and Maryland, earned a Bachelor of Arts in History from Georgetown and a Master of Arts in History and Women’s Studies from Stony Brook University. Having lived on the West and East coasts, she decided to take a chance on the Gulf Coast and moved to New Orleans. She’s been an adjunct instructor in Latin American History at Tulane University since 2004 and became executive director of the Pro Bono Project in 2017. But while she was building an impressive resume, she joined the fun loving Krewe of Tucks.
“I moved here 17 years ago and kind of quickly became ingratiated in the legal community, but also found a love of Carnival.”
In 2017, she served as the krewe’s queen and describes it as a celebrity experience.
“It was an incredibly great moment. I love Tucks. Their spirit of irreverence is something that I find just wonderful and delightful. I’ve often told my friends who’ve not ridden that it is the one time where you really feel like a rock star. All you see are the crowds! For six miles you have people hollering and yelling at you and waving, holding up signs with your name on it. It’s truly breathtaking.
“I love what our Carnival krewes do in the city. Because they’re quick, much like our professionals in the legal community, to reach out and extend that spirit of philanthropy.”
Asked if she’d consider returning to her West or East coast roots, she said, “I don’t think I could live anywhere else. Yeah, New Orleans has spoiled me.”
Matthew R. Slaughter
Firm: Phelps Dunbar
Law School: University of Alabama
Specialty: Commercial litigation
Number of years practicing: Six
Number of years with the Pro Bono Project: Two
What made you want to be a lawyer? It was something that intrigued me because it’s very challenging and different every day. There were several layers that I looked up to growing up in Alabama. They certainly were pillars in the community, in my mind, being able to have a happy life and also making a real impact on their community and people that need help.
My father was always somebody that people would always seek guidance and counsel from him. He’s not an attorney; he’s in construction. But people always sought his advice. I looked up to the fact that he was always such a resource and always there for people. I certainly admired that and wanted to be able to do it for the people in my life. I just like being a resource for people.
Why do you participate in the Pro Bono Project? I’ve always been interested in the Pro Bono Project since I came to New Orleans. One of my mentors here, Chris Ralston, was heavily involved in the Pro Bono Project and at one point was the chairman of the board there. He highlighted the project to me and showed how it is uniquely situated in New Orleans to bridge a gap. It helps a lot of people who would normally get swept under the rug or fall between the cracks. They are an organization that also helps promote young attorneys. When I was getting started, I was able to gain very satisfying experience doing pro bono work. I find it extremely rewarding to be able to calm their nerves, be able to sit down and tell them like, ‘Look, if there is anything that can be done, I’m going to do everything I can to help you.’
You’re not going to meet anybody more thankful than someone who has everything on the line, not knowing where to go with it and not having the resources to do so and you get them a positive result.
What is your favorite Pro Bono Project case that you’ve handled? That’s tough. I have a couple of very favorite cases that happen to be pro bono cases. I guess I could just say in general, some of the cases that I get from the Pro Bono Project are child custody cases, things involving minor children. And just honestly, those are the most satisfying cases.
Children are the most important things in a parent’s life. Being able to watch people get reunited with their children is just awesome. Not too long ago I was on a case where a father and son were reunited after not seeing each other for over a year. When they were able to embrace, watching that real human connection, that was one of the most powerful experiences in my life.
Neighborhood: Lower Garden District
Firm/Office: Baker Donelson
Law School: Loyola New Orleans
Specialties: Corporate restructuring and bankruptcy
Number of years practicing: Nine
Number of years with the Pro Bono Project: Seven
What made you want to be a lawyer? I’ve been told from the time I was little, from everyone around me growing up, that I needed to be a lawyer because I like to get into robust debates with people. I always knew I wanted to be an advocate, and I just kind of never really thought of myself as being anything else. Like, there was really never any other option.
Where does that sense of advocacy come from? I’ve had some stuff happen in my family. I’ve had a family member that I thought was wrongfully convicted. There was a very sensational crime, and my family member was accused of it. I saw the trial process go on and with a very sad outcome. And it just instilled in me the sense that I need to be a part of this machine that is the law, because it’s not necessarily always resulting in just outcomes. So that I think I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but that certainly helped drive me. And ironically, I didn’t go into criminal defense.
Why do you participate in the Pro Bono Project? The Pro Bono Project enables me to do things that help me feel like I literally am helping improve outcomes, helping provide access to justice to the folks in our community that really need it and that don’t have someone to speak for them.
What do you get out of it? A sense of accomplishment isn’t the right word, but I feel like I’m actually doing something. I’m taking action. It’s one thing to see injustice pointed out and discuss it robustly with your friends at dinner. It’s a completely different thing to actually roll up your sleeves, take on a case that I’m not getting any credit for. I’m not billing for it. But it’s just me literally rolling up my sleeves and being able to give back to the community.
What is your favorite Pro Bono Project case that you’ve handled? There are two cases that stick out to me. One was this little lady that would have been the victim of contractor fraud. We were able to get a non-dischargeable judgment in the contractor’s bankruptcy case, meaning this client could pursue him for her claim against him after his case. Basically, he tried to file bankruptcy so that he wouldn’t have to pay her back. He ripped her house apart, took her money, and never put it back together. I mean, this poor lady was living on dirt floor with no roof. It was really bad. And, so, we helped her get a judgment that was collectible against him. And that really resonated with me. She cried and hugged us. And it was just a sense of really helping a person, using my skill set in bankruptcy law, which is what I do, to help this woman.
Neighborhood: Lake Terrace
Firm/Office: Hancock Whitney Corporation
Law School: Loyola Law School
Specialties: Bank Law
Number of years practicing: Eight, 20 years as banker
Number of years with the Pro Bono Project: Two
What made you want to be a lawyer? Well, there’s three things that I’ve always been interested in. I was a DJ for a while, but that wasn’t paying the bills. The other two things that always piqued my interest was banking and law. As a younger person the social justice perspective to change the world you know, but as I got older it kind of morphed because of my other interests. My mom worked in banking for 35 years. So, when I went to college, I worked as a teller at Regions Bank. From there I graduated and then worked in different aspects of commercial banking. I eventually transferred to Capital One. At that time, banks were heavy into mergers and consolidations. I always had an interest in the law and decided I might as well go back and go to law school.
Why do you participate in the Pro Bono Project? I was brought into the Pro Bono Project by one of my mentors who is now a federal court judge, Dana Douglas. Dana alerted me to the great things that the Pro Bono Project does. At the time, she was chairing the gala and with several legal clinics that they were doing. She encouraged me to participate in both the legal clinics and the gala Georgia committee, which I did. I saw the good things that they were doing and just continued with it. Before becoming a board member, I participated in several legal clinics and committees. Being able to help underprivileged people take care of legal needs is a very rewarding experience.
What do you get out of it? I come from a single parent household where, you know, sometimes things got hard. We never went without, but some of my close friends that I knew as a kid, people in my neighborhood, they really struggled. The neighborhood that I grew up in in New Orleans East was filled with duplexes. My mom purchased a duplex, and we rented out the other side. A lot of other people in my neighborhood did not own. They were renters. I saw the struggles. For most people, if you have an important legal issue or medical issue that’s something that needs to be taken care of and is. For underprivileged people, it’s not something that you can just take care of because you’re just trying to pay for day-to-day expenses. Legal things of that nature just kind of get put on hold and just kind of linger out there. They compound and become bigger problems where it starts impacting their health, their ability to work, their credit, and other issues. It’s important. It helps them solve problems and get ahead, you know, not being tagged long term by legal issues that they can’t afford to take care of.
What is your favorite Pro Bono Project case that you’ve handled? I’m a transactional lawyer; I’m not a litigator. I don’t handle cases. But I have worked with the clinics. I have gone down to the courthouse to help people interpret and complete legal papers. I would not do anybody justice by going into the courtroom!