When she steps in as 2014-’15 chief of the American Bar Association’s litigation section, New Orleans attorney Nancy Degan hopes to interest its 60,000 members in further extending the reach of a program that began here in 2004 to provide free volunteer legal help to residents of homeless shelters.
“A lot of these homeless people are homeless because they don’t have an ID and can’t get a job without one,” says Degan, who heads the business litigation section at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, whose New Orleans law office is on St. Charles Avenue.
The program, called Project H.E.L.P., (Homeless Experience Legal Protection) was born in the mind of New Orleans federal district court Judge Jay Zainey as he and other judges served lunch one day at a homeless shelter, and he thought about how big a change legal help could make in the residents’ lives. Zainey began rounding up volunteer lawyers, who soon numbered in the hundreds, and since then the program has expanded to more than 15 other cities.
At Baker Donaldson, Degan’s job is helping solve the problems of its business clients, whether through negotiation, trial, appeal, mediation or arbitration. Her peers consistently praise her skills, and not surprisingly she’s been on The Best Lawyers in America’s list of top attorneys in the areas of commercial litigation, alternative dispute resolution and regulatory enforcement since 2003. Moreover, she has been listed since 2007 in Louisiana Super Lawyers, which has ranked her among the state’s top 10 attorneys for 2010-’12.
Degan, the sister of WYES public television producer Peggy Scott Laborde, grew up in Old Metairie, graduated from Cabrini High School and then from the University of New Orleans before she decided to enroll at Loyola University New Orleans’ College of Law. Her then-boyfriend, Sid Degan, who’s now her husband, was finishing up law school at Tulane University.
“I decided to pursue law because it’s important to everything we do on a daily basis,” she says. “ If you read the newspaper, the stories are all about people who are making laws, breaking laws and new laws going into effect. It affects every single part of our lives.”
Degan and her husband are the parents of two daughters – one has graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and is now in training to be a naval flight officer, and the other is about to start her senior year at the University of Notre Dame, where she’s majoring in accounting and German.
Mentor: My professional mentor is Roy Cheatwood, a fabulous trial lawyer with whom I have had the honor to work since graduating from law school in 1983. He is also a dear friend, as I guess most mentors are. From a personal standpoint, my mentor is my husband of almost 32 years, Sid Degan, who also happens to be a terrific lawyer and best friend. However, we rarely talk law.
Defining Moment: Every moment defines who you are, by how you act and react in response to a variety of situations every day. With all that said, I guess the one moment that helped me understand why God put me on Earth was when I became a parent. With all the roles I have and have had in my life, my most cherished is being a mother to my daughters, Alison and Emily, now 23 and 21. Parenting has provided me a perspective on life that has helped me in everything else I do.
Advice to Young Woman: My advice to young women and men alike is that to succeed in any work situation, you should aim to reduce the anxiety of those for whom you work. Anxiety is reduced when you show that you care about what you’re doing and that you’re committed to accomplishing what’s asked of you correctly and on time. Two more things – don’t be afraid to ask questions, and volunteer, volunteer, volunteer – at work and in your community. You get so much more out of helping others than you put into it!
Goals: My goals are always the same. I have said a little prayer every morning for a long time asking for help to be a good mother, daughter (even though my parents are now deceased), wife, sister, friend and lawyer. I try to remember to throw in “leader” now, given my some of my responsibilities.
Favorite Things About What I Do: The intellectual stimulation of analyzing and solving problems and the wonderful relationships with other people developed during that process.