Law students head to Biloxi to gain experience

Sun Herald

Patrick Ochs

Some college students choose to spend their spring break on the slopes in Aspen, Colo., or on an all-inclusive cruise. A select group of law students from Boston University, Virginia and Duke opted instead to put their studies to the test this week and travel to Biloxi to do pro bono work through the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Many of the students are still in their first year of law school, so the past week was a refreshing experience.

“The law school is one big tower and we’ve been in that tower for six months on end without seeing much daylight,” joked Tim Murphy, a first-year law student at BU. “It was nice to get out and do real work, too.”

Once in town, students were able to choose from a number of cases that interest them, from Katrina and BP related incidents to others.

Amanda Hesse wants to do public interest work upon graduation and said the past week was rather eye opening.

“It was great to have that hands-on, real, tangible experience and see what real attorneys are doing in this field,” she said.

Center President Reilly Morse said the Biloxi office opened shortly after Katrina hit in 2005. At the time, he said law students would just show up looking to help and the staff was forced to scramble to provide opportunities. Over the years, he said they have molded their program to be more structured.

“They would show up and say, ‘Hi, we’re here from Rutgers. How can we help you?’ … We never knew how many (would show up) so we had to adapt quickly on our feet,” he said. “We quickly realized the experience is much better if they can get out in the community and have a community experience.”

They learned quickly that it’s best if the students further the center’s current work and aren’t just fed busy work.

“It’s advancing actual things we’d be doing if we had that many staff ourselves,” he said. “We have had almost 2,500 law students since ’05 (work at the Center’s three state-wide offices). That’s probably the largest number of law students coming through the South since the Civil Rights Movement.”

The week wasn’t all work. Murphy said the students were essentially kicked out of the office in the evening to experience all the Coast has to offer.

“We did a good job of getting out at the end of the day and going to eat,” he said. “We had delicious food, went to the beach and went on tours to see what happened. We definitely got a good bit of local flavor, too.”

The week-long program concluded Friday afternoon with brief group presentations and a “graduation” ceremony.

Help for the Coast won’t end when the current group of students head home. Morse said they’re expecting 33 more students from Chicago and Northwestern next week to pick up where the last group left off.