The Next Generation of Access To Justice Leaders

The Pro Bono Project recently hosted two interns as part of the inaugural year of the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Access to Justice Developing Leadership Intern Program. This program is the result of the collaborative efforts of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Louisiana District Judges Association, Louisiana Bar Foundation, civil legal aid providers, law schools, the Louisiana State Bar Association, and four law firms: Adams and Reese and Phelps Dunbar supported two New Orleans-based interns; and Baker Donelson and Jones Walker sponsored two interns in Baton Rouge.

The ATJ Developing Leadership Intern Program is the only initiative of its kind in the country that brings together justice community stakeholders, with the goal of developing future ATJ leadership for Louisiana. The Project was selected as one of several ATJ legal service providers in the metro area, along with several prominent jurists and attorneys to provide the interns with the invaluable expertise, guidance, and commitment to justice.

Four exceptional second-year law students were selected for the program. Each week throughout the five-week program, the interns are focusing on various civil legal needs of low-income families and individuals in Louisiana, how service providers address those needs, and the benefits of these services to both clients and the entire justice system. The goal of the program is to enhance the interns’ understanding of public service, which will benefit our community for years to come.

 Annie Lemoine, Executive Director Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, Sarah Smith-Clevenger (l to r)

Annie Lemoine, Executive Director Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, Sarah Smith-Clevenger (l to r)

The Project welcomed Juris Doctorate candidates Annie Lemoine from Loyola University College of Law and Sarah Smith-Clevenger of Tulane University Law School to give them an insider’s view of our successful private bar-based volunteer service delivery model.

While at The Project for three days in late May, the interns worked with staff, volunteers and clients to learn more about the types of civil legal needs within the community, as well as how these needs are met by frontline providers such as The Project.

Seeing The Need Up Close and Personal …

Ms. Lemoine decided upon the law  after having completed a Masters in Social Work at Tulane. As a case manager and social services intern, Ms. Lemoine witnessed firsthand how the need for civil legal services plays an important role in successful outcomes for clients involved in criminal matters.

As a case manager at Crescent House Healing & Empowerment Center, she worked with survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking. In that role she learned that once the criminal case was over, it was the civil legal needs that often prevented clients from moving forward with their lives.

“Through my interactions with survivors, I learned that there are many barriers to a safe, successful life.  Although leaving an abusive relationship can be perceived as the hardest choice an individual has to make, survivors often struggles the most after this point. They require support outside the criminal justice system. They need help with divorces, custody agreement, property disputes, housing advocacy, and financial independence. …” said Ms. Lemoine in her personal statement when she applied for the ATJ Leadership intern position.

Conscious Choice – Broad Perspective

Like Annie Lemoine, Sarah Smith-Clevenger has made a conscious choice to pursue a career in public service – advocating for and serving communities in need.

As an undergraduate she worked as an intern investigator for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. Through this work she interacted directly with clients, getting to know them, their backgrounds, their families and the community in which they lived. Upon returning to New Orleans, she interned with the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD), witnessing the many hurdles to obtain proper care that face men and women with mental health disorders within the prison system.

From there Ms. Smith-Clevenger went on to intern with many area food banks, The Gulf Restoration Network and Coastal Roots, again at the OPD in the area of domestic violence and finally at the White House as a victim’s policy and advocacy intern. Through all of these opportunities, what she saw was that the need for justice runs across every aspect of life. Underserved individuals are often the most deeply affected.

“My time working with alleged perpetrators of domestic violence at OPD and later with victim’s policy and advocacy at the White House gave me insight into the complexities of humanity and some of the justice gaps in criminal and civil law, as well as the individual, grassroots and team work it takes to fight for and achieve the legislative and political change,” said Ms. Smith-Clevenger in her personal statement.

“The Pro Bono Project enjoyed having these two vibrant and committed interns in the office for three days to experience another view of how access to justice plays out in a purely civil legal services delivery system. We look forward to continuing to work with the LSBA’s Access to Justice Leadership Intern program as it opens its doors to more interns in years to come,” said The Project’s Executive Director, Jennifer Rizzo-Choi.