High Demand Prompts Pro Bono Project Expansion

From New Orleans Citybusiness, September 19, 2016 by Prinsey Walker

A 15-year-old girl faced deportation back to El Salvador this year. Remaining in Kenner with her two American siblings meant that she needed a lawyer willing to help her, but she lacked the financial resources to afford one.

She reached out to The Pro Bono Project, which provided her with local attorney Kristin Hendricks, of Kristin E. Hendricks Esq., LLC.

“If she is sent back, and the family is still here, she would have to suffer all sorts of bad conditions,” Hendricks said.

The rise in the metro area’s immigrant population, as well as recent flooding has contributed to an annual increase from 10 to 15 percent for free legal services provided by The Pro Bono Project within the last decade. Over 2,000 attorneys provide their expertise for residents who cannot afford legal representation.

In 2016 (to date), the project handled 965 cases.

“There are more immigrants here. The low-income population has unfortunately grown due to the economic downturn that has happened,” said Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, executive director for the Project. “There is also this lingering impact of disaster services. Legal cases don’t resolve right away – sometimes they drag on for years. We are dealing with the legacy of that, we still have Katrina claims.”

To meet the increase in the need for services, the board for the Project announced on Sept. 7 it will replace the chief legal officer position with two new roles: a managing attorney for direct client services and a managing attorney for volunteer engagement.

The project’s chief legal officer, Linton Carney, announced his retirement this year, and the board worked to restructure the organization to best meet the demand, Rizzo-Choi said.

“I am very excited about what this change in our structure means for The Pro Bono Project,” said Norm Rubenstein, board chair for the Project. “When we set out to rethink the model, we thought it would be wonderful if we could expand the leadership of The Project and have two people assisting the executive director.”

 Jesse George

Jesse George

Staff attorney Jesse George was promoted to managing attorney for direct client services. George, whom received his law degree from Tulane Law School, worked with The Pro Bono Project since 2011. George led consumer and child-in-need of care cases. His new duty entails growing the child-in- need program and mentoring volunteer attorneys.

Kathleen Legendre assumed the new managing attorney for volunteer engagement position. In 2006, Legendre received her law degree from LSU. Previously, Legendre worked with the Louisiana Bar Foundation, the organization that founded and continued to fund The Pro Bono Project since 1986.

Legendre’s responsibilities will include supervising staff members, supporting volunteers and continuing relationships in the legal community.

 Kathleen Legendre

Kathleen Legendre

“We wanted people with a passion for social justice and the law that enables it,” Rubenstein said. “Commitment to pro bono was critical to us, and that is something that they both demonstrated.”

With these two additions, the organization hopes to gain more volunteers and take on more cases, Rizzo-Choi said. Additionally, attorney mentoring is a task attached to the new management positions, she said.

“I hope to work with them to grow our brand overall by increasing our mentoring and services that we provide not just for clients, but to the volunteers who come to us that look for training and technical expertise as they grow in their path as a lawyer,” Rizzo-Choi said.

Kristin Hendricks, who is working on some of the new cases, said The Pro Bono staff members mentor her through her immigration cases.

“We have to produce so many statements, affidavits and hard evidence for a reason that the girl cannot be sent back to El Salvador,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks, like the other Pro Bono attorneys, say they see the need to volunteer their time to serve the community.

“The city that care forgot, or the city forgot to care,” Hendricks said. “I want to be able to give something back. It is just anything that I can do. This city needs me,” she said.