UM law students to aid victims of Katrina

Nearly 80 to spend the winter break assisting Gulf Coast hurricane survivors

December 25, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

In the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi where Hurricane Katrina roared through more than two years ago, frustrated homeowners still struggle.

Their plight is again attracting the attention of the University of Maryland School of Law. Nearly 80 law students plan to forgo part of their winter vacation next month and chip in on a variety of legal matters affecting hurricane survivors in Louisiana and Mississippi.

"What we've heard is that the immediacy of the problem isn't any less now," said Alicia H. Welch, a third-year law student and coordinator of the project. "Lawyers working down there are starting to see clients who have reached their breaking point."

Groups of Maryland students have been traveling to the region to provide aid on legal issues since the hurricane hit, paying particular attention to criminal cases in New Orleans. The effort is part of a loose network of hundreds of law students across the country that has been organized by the national Student Hurricane Network.

A new twist this year is a focus on civil cases in Mississippi, especially housing issues, organizers in Maryland said. In October, the state lifted its moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, sparking fears that Mississippi could soon see a spike in such cases.

In a partnership with the Mississippi Center for Justice, students will aid lawyers by interviewing clients and researching legal issues. The nonprofit legal assistance center and law school officials also said they hope to establish a joint semester-long or summer-long clinic program in Mississippi for Maryland students who want to spend more time on Katrina-related public-interest law.

Caroline Farrell, 23, a first-year student living in Baltimore, has a master's degree in public health. Her background, she said, could help clients establish eligibility for Medicaid and Medicare, a notoriously difficult process, especially for those who may have lost critical documents in the storm.

"We've heard that there are still a lot of people who should be receiving benefits but aren't yet," she said.

Douglas L. Colbert, a Maryland law professor who leads a law school clinic on indigent defense, said the growth of the program from three dozen last winter to about 80 this year is a testament to the public-mindedness of the next generation of lawyers.

The success of the program also drew in Jim Archibald, Maryland Class of 1975 and of counsel at Venable law firm.

A member of the law school's alumni board, Archibald said he was so encouraged by the program's track record that he and another alumnus will join the students traveling to Mississippi from Jan. 5 through 12.

"I think it's a great opportunity to help, as well as a time for alumni to ... interact with students," Archibald said.

Sarah Liebschutz, 25, wasn't aware of the project when she started at the law school last fall. But after working for an educational policy organization before entering law school, she said she had been ready to find a public-service program to supplement the grind of her classes.

"My hope is that my work will have an immediate impact on someone's life," she said. "But I hope this also instills in me a commitment throughout my career as a lawyer to this kind of work."

For more information about the project, go to

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