As the state of Louisiana reflects on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, attorney Christy Kane can remember her days before the storm. She was a Partner at the law firm of Adams and Reese, where she focused her practice on class action litigation, served as the New Orleans office pro bono coordinator, encouraging others to do pro bono because “it was always the right thing to do.”
Little did Kane know that 10 years later, out of the joint commitment of herself, a corporate sponsor, a New Orleans law firm and a national nonprofit organization, the foundation was laid for an innovative partnership and the resulting rejuvenation of the public policy pro bono nonprofit, Louisiana Appleseed.
The organization, now led by executive director Kane, has engaged more than 200 volunteers who have donated more than $1.5 million worth of pro bono legal services. Through legislation and community education programs, attorney volunteers with Louisiana Appleseed have helped save 740 homes across New Orleans, with an economic benefit of more than $10 million. Another advocacy effort has resulted in150,000 Louisiana students in 340 schools receiving lunch under a new program.
“It’s rewarding to reflect how far Louisiana Appleseed has come in improving our pro bono services across the City and also statewide, and it’s a testament to all of our volunteers and corporate sponsors who have dedicated their time to help those in need,” said Kane.
In the first partnership of its kind, on January 1, 2007, Appleseed entered into an agreement with Adams and Reese to provide one of its partners, Kane, as the ConocoPhillips/Adams and Reese Fellow. Her position was funded by Adams and Reese, ConocoPhillips and National Appleseed. Kane’s full-time role was to manage and direct Louisiana Appleseed. Appleseed works with many law firms across the country, but this was the first time a firm was actually providing an attorney to serve as an executive director. For the first two years, Louisiana Appleseed’s headquarters was at the Adams and Reese New Orleans office in One Shell Square.
“In the wake of Katrina, there was a significant need for attorneys doing pro bono work and the need for an organized pro bono system, especially in advancing public policy issues,” said Adams and Reese Partner Martin Stern, who now serves on the Board of Louisiana Appleseed.
Stern and Kane discussed the possibility of rejuvenating the Louisiana Appleseed center and approached ConocoPhillips and National Appleseed about the partnership. The rest is history.
Stern added: “What makes this organization unique is that instead of working on the traditional pro bono matters such as writing wills, Louisiana Appleseed attacks social justice issues at their root cause by effecting policy change, whether it be to propose a law to facilitate heirs to take legal title in the homes that have been handed down to them, to working with banks to provide financial access to immigrants, to advocating a program to greatly increase the number of free school lunches provided to needy students. This was a natural partnership for our firm, which has always been dedicated to community service.”
In 2007, the partnership received an “Innovator of the Year” award by New Orleans CityBusiness, for efforts to advance and promote the pro bono services of Louisiana Appleseed, and introduce an innovative service or product in the New Orleans marketplace. In 2008, Kane decided to leave private practice and enter the nonprofit sector full time as the executive director of Louisiana Appleseed. On Jan. 1, 2009, Louisiana Appleseed moved down Poydras Street into its own office and entered into a strategic partnership with the Louisiana Bar Foundation, where it still is today, and where it continues to successfully advance policy initiatives.
These include the following:
1. Save Homes - Volunteers have helped save 740 homes across New Orleans, with an economic benefit of more than $10 million. They’ve done this through educating homeowners, legislative advocacy, and partnering with local groups.
2. Make sure school-aged children are fed - Almost 150,000 Louisiana students in 340 schools have received lunch under a new program, for which Louisiana Appleseed volunteers successfully advocated.
3. Prevent teen dating violence - One in 5 high school students report being physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. Louisiana Appleseed continues its Abuse Prevention Through Education program, teaching youth about healthy relationships.
4. Help strengthen our schools - Volunteers contributed to a legal handbook for charter school board members, educating board members about laws governing charter schools.
5. Encourage pro bono work - Most recently, Louisiana Appleseed proposed — and the Louisiana Supreme Court adopted — a rule change so that lawyers can earn some of their required Continuing Legal Education credits in return for doing pro bono work. The hope and belief is that this will provide an incentive for lawyers across the State to represent those in need.
“What makes Louisiana Appleseed so effective is the partnerships that the organization has created through several law firms across New Orleans and its attorneys to research our important public policy issues and the existing laws, analyze how those laws are being implemented, and to determine what can be changed to improve access for people and then to advocate for that change,” Kane said. “Our goal is to inspire lawyers to give back every day, not just because of a hurricane, but because they have skills that can help people - people who can't help themselves. Our volunteers don't just help one client; their work results in lasting positive change, benefitting generations to come.”