Sunday, March 15, 2009

Back in the Big Town

It's Sunday night at the end of Spring Break, and I'm just getting over the fever I caught one week ago after slamming oysters with Mark Dorosin and Jackson Mabry at New Bern's Raw Bar this past Tuesday night. All dietary regrets aside, I'm shivering from a pro bono mountaintop high when I think about our few days in the coastal plains.

I will never forget the face of a client, who lives in between alot of places outside of New Bern, as she said she just wanted to know what would happen to her land when she died. And I will never forget her joy in describing a still-working watch given by a sweetheart who died soon after giving it to her - her only luxury item - which she could now preserve for the wrist of her great-granddaughter.

Often the needs of the young are emphasized - right to a good education, right to marry, right to speak up, right to accumulate property, etc - but the rights of poor seniors are not as eagerly advocated or even considered. And the right to peace of mind in the face of death is one of those rights we would rather not think about, though it springs from our condition in the same way that other protected human impulses do.

I barely escaped Chapel Hill on early Monday morning, in a way looking for relief of my own from the monstrous schedule of study, activities, and relationships that I try to maintain. What I found were people who needed skills that I am learning, and who had been totally unaffected by the busyness of life in Chapel Hill.

Thank you ENC!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Day Four: Wills, Milkshakes, and Automobiles

Thursday was the day that we came home to Chapel Hill, but we were scheduled to work during the morning as well.

The New Bern Team left the hotel around 9:00, and headed to Pamlico County - about 30 minutes away [Because we split up and came home right after our work day, I don't know how the Greenville Team's day went - hopefully one of them will help me out and post to the blog ...]. When we arrived at the senior center, its kind staff showed us to a large room in the back with some folding tables and chairs. Though a few people had signed up to be clients, we had to wait for an hour or so for anyone to show up. Luckily, there was a pile of yard sale items in our room for our browsing enjoyment. By noon, though, almost all of us had at least one client. My partner and I worked with a very nice elderly couple (the parents of one of the center's staff) who, because of a son's issues with the IRS, had some quite interesting questions about how their real property should be distributed. David and other LANC lawyers were, as always, very helpful in answering these questions.

While some of us had time to take our clients all the way through the execution of their documents, others left this step to the LANC lawyers so that we could hit the road before it got too late. We loaded up into a few separate vehicles and made the drive back to Chapel Hill (along the way, Melissa, Dan, Saurabh, and Jackson were introduced to a side of Evan that few have ever known ... ask him to tell you more about it).

Overall, a great trip and a really terrific spring break! Thank you, everyone, for the fun times and the unique experience. To the participants: I've left a lot of details out of this blog, so please post any anecdotes, photos, questions, thoughts, inside jokes, etc. that you'd like to add!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Day Three: The day of Free.

Free Day. A day ripe with promise - like a new-born baby or a blank canvas.

The day (which was actually Wednesday, March 11) started quite early, as we had breakfast with Judge Flanagan at 8:30 am. Melissa, who will be clerking with Judge Flanagan next year, was gracious enough to set up the date, which included bagels (rye bagel + honey walnut cream cheese = awesome), an intimate question and answer session with Judge Flanagan, and the privilege of sitting in the jury box while watching a few criminal sentencing hearings (dare I say, even more awesome than bagels?).

If all of this wasn't enough, we were also given the opportunity to witness Madison's father, a public defender, advocating passionately for his client during the third and final sentencing hearing. During the court's recess, we gathered 'round while Mr. Perry gave a lovely and moving account of his experiences as a public defender in Eastern NC and his reasons for practicing this type of law. Once tears were dried, and many photos were taken, we posed for a final group photo on the courthouse steps, and departed for out next appointment.

Next was lunch at the law firm of Sumrell, Sugg, Carmichael, Hicks & Hart. The office was right down the street from the courthouse (which was right down the street from our hotel), so traveling on foot was a breeze. Not only did the firm's attorneys treat us to a delicious lunch of sandwiches, pasta salad and chocolate chip cookies, but they kindly answered any questions volunteers had about legal practice in New Bern.

Around 1:30, we left Sumrell Sugg and had a couple of hours of actual "free" time. Some students walked around downtown New Bern (along the way picking up snacks, gifts, and a belt featuring the New Bern crest - Gus is to thank for spawning this phenomenon), others hung around the hotel and basked in the sun, and others cought up on some much-needed sleep.

At 4:00 we had our final debriefing session in a gazeebo outside the hotel, which was led by both Melissa and Evan. To the delight of some and the dismay of others (me), all volunteers were allowed (forced) to participate in the debriefing by answering a question pulled out of an ice bucket. Questions ranged from "What was the biggest challenge you faced on this trip?" to "Did the trip meet your expectations?" The latter was my question, and Colin's - therefore, my answer went something like this: "Colin took my answer." This is what happens when I am forced to speak in public.

Others' answers were more poignant, though. Some spoke of the rage and frusration that they felt when working with clients facing tough situations. Others told anecdotes about funny or unique experiences during the trip (e.g. the New Bern Team's stop at a gas station awash with the colors of the Indian flag, and Saurabh's consequent delight). Our team leaders, Seema, Dean Novinsky, and Mark Dorosin (that's Dean Dorosin to you), were all thanked enthusiastically for their hard work and dedication to the project. In all, it was, appropriately, the trip's most warm-and-fuzzy debriefing (though the others came pretty close).

At 6 we had our alumni cocktail hour at Captain Rattys. Though no actual alumni showed up, we were happy to see our friends from LANC come out and share some drinks and food with us. After dinner, the group went to a neighboring bar, where we drank a little more, played pool, and listened to an eclectic musical mix on the jukebox. I promised I wouldn't tout my personal failures on this blog, but I have to mention that Mark and I played a rousing game of pool with Jackson and Zac. Though it was close, Jackson / Zac won on a technicality when I sank the cue ball with only the 8-ball remaining on the table. Not that I'm a sore loser or anything, but I did that on purpose, just to be nice; plus, I'm pretty sure Jackson and Zac cheated somehow.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Day Two, Evening: Scenic Drives, Boat Rides, Chicken Thighs

We at Team New Bern finished the work day around 4:00. In all, we were quite happy with the way things went this time around - each couple had at least one client (a couple groups had more than one); the senior center was very nice, clean, and comfortable (and had internet access); and its staff was warm and helpful. From what I heard at our debriefing-slash-stand-up-comedy-set (ask Evan to tell you the one about the frog with the beard), the Greenville team had similarly positive experiences. Most of the Greenville Team were kept busy with estate planning clients, while others helped LANC with tax, property, and domestic violence cases.

I might as well tell you the bad news now - no ferry.

But do not despair. That does not mean that our night was completely boat-less. After driving (and what a drive it was, thanks to a huge truck in the middle of a crucial road) back to the hotel, we did a quick turnaround and caravanned over to Gus' father's yacht club for boating and eating. Yacht club members were kind enough to take us out on two awesome boats - the Pelican and the Therapy (sadly, I could not think of one good joke to make about riding the Therapy ... it seems like it would be so easy ... Oh well, I rode Pelican anyway). The Pelican had beautiful wooden interiors and soft jazz music playing in its heated cabin. The view from the deck was not too shabby either!

Gus' parents treated us to a delicious dinner of chicken, coleslaw, beans, hush puppies, and veggie burgers ... not to mention beer and assorted snacks. During debriefing (which took place in front of a roaring fire), many volunteers told stories, some quite emotional, about the great effect that our wills and advanced directives had on clients. To some clients, the wills and advanced directives gave peace of mind, allowing them to rest assured that their belongings would find a proper owner after the client's death. These documents were also empowering for our clients, giving them the opportunity and means to determine themselves how their property would be handled. Stories were also told about the substantial thought that clients put into their bequests, some even using their gifts to touch generations that had not yet been born.

After debriefing, we all bid adieu to the yacht club and headed back to the hotel.

Tomorrow is Fun Day. I'll let you know how it goes!

Day One-Point-Five: Beaufort County, Personal Questions, and Fried Okra

Well, It's around 3:00 on day two of our trip! This is a half-time report.

All but 3 members of Team New Bern are in Beaufort County, NC (the other three are at the New Bern office of LANC). We had quite a steady group of clients today! Each pair of volunteers was able to write documents for a client; in fact, I think one group had two clients. Everyone seemed a bit more comfortable with the whole process today, having already completed one day of work.

At the lunch hour, most of the group went to Farm Boys, a restaurant around the corner from the senior center. Cheeseburgers, fried okra, and hush puppies were enjoyed by all. After lunch, our clients returned and everyone scrambled to the (one) printer to print out (and re-print, and in my case re-re-print) various docs. Our client, a senior center regular, had just come off a rousing game of canasta, and was raring to go as soon as we got back to the center. She was so refreshed, in fact, that she was not shy about questioning my partner and me about whether we were engaged (I can only assume she did not mean to each other) and urging us to go "find a [boy/girl]friend." In all, she was a quite agreeable client.

We have yet to take the ferry ride promised in yesterday's post. Hopefully by tonight I'll have more on that.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Day One: Travel, Training, and Multi-Tasking

Today was our first day in Eastern NC, and boy was it a long one! (the exclamation point indicates enthusiasm and not crippling exhaustion)

The morning started around 5:30 am when we congregated at the Alta Springs clubhouse in Chapel Hill. I don't know if anyone else was stricken by this, but some truly fabulous minivans were rented for our travel. I mean, these were shiny, sparkly new Toyota minivans. The old reliable UNC Law van was used too - also fabulous, don't get me wrong. I ended up in a sparkly Toyota minivan with Corinne, Saurabh, and Seema, and was the second vehicle behind the UNC Law van, driven with vim and vigor by Mark Dorosin. Congrats to all of the other vans and cars in our caravan for keeping up.

When we arrived at the Greenville Office of Legal Aid of NC, we were greeted by ... well, we weren't greeted for a little while, because the office hadn't really opened at that point. Luckily Mark was there with pockets full of Greenville-related trivia for our entertainment (for instance, did you know that the statue of the confederate soldier situated in front of the Pitt Co. courthouse faces north - to face the oncoming union soldiers? Now you do). Once the office opened, we met Evan Lewis, Senior Managing Attorney of LANC, and Lesley Albritton, staff attorney. They gave us a brief overview of the LANC, its 3B program (a source of federal funding which allows LANC to provide services to low income or elderly people), and its Low Income Tax Clinic (offering advice to low-income taxpayers in Eastern NC involved in disputes with the IRS). We were notified that some of us would be working with LANC on LITC cases if our sites failed to attract many estate planning document-seekers. After our training (it was now around 10:00), we departed for our respective sites. Oh wait! Almost forgot - the Greenville office provided us with coffee and doughnuts ... regular glazed, and also a very exciting assortment. I tried some sort of blueberry cakey doughnut. Very good.

Our group assignments are as follows:

New Bern - Diana, Zac, Dan, Melissa, Evan, Jackson, Lucy, Merab, Gus
Greenville - Saurabh, Madison, Rob, Lauren G, Colin, Corrine, Emily, Seema, Lauren J & Claire

As you can see, I was on the New Bern team. When we arrived at our site, the Jones County Department of Social Services (and the biggest building in Jones County), we were led to a nice room in the back with some tables and chairs. We had very few clients to begin with (hey, its the first day after all), but by the end of the day, most volunteers in Team New Bern were able to help a client with his or her estate planning documents. Others assisted Legal Aid attorneys in LITC cases. In all, most of us managed to stay busy.

Around 5pm, we headed back to the hotel (the fabulous Comfort Suites, New Bern, by the way). Team New Bern hung around for a while, waiting for Team Greenville to return so that we could get to our room and shower and relax. Debriefing was at 6:45. It turns out that Team Greenville had a similar experience to that of Team New Bern - unfortunately, due to lack of transportation, most of their clients were not able to make it to their site, but they were able to give some roadside estate planning advice to one lucky client!

Melissa led debriefing tonight. We discussed the impressions that our clients and assignments had made on us. Volunteers seemed to have an overwhelmingly positive impression of their clients. Not only did volunteers feel that they had something in common with clients, but they were at times surprised by clients' sophisticated grasp of estate planning principles. While some topics, such as those addressed in the Living Will document, were somewhat sensitive, volunteers were, overall, able to communicate with clients comfortably.

We split up for dinner. The majority of the group went to the Raw Bar, while a few others (including yours truly) veered off to go to Morgan's Tavern and Grill. I'll make it short: Big chicken salad. Lots of fruit. Jelly dressing. I didn't finish it. Not that it was bad, it was just a lot of lettuce. But that's another story.

Tomorrow: I and the rest of Team New Bern ride a ferry. I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Welcome to UNC Law in Eastern North Carolina!

Hi Everyone!

Thank you so much for your interest in UNC Law School's spring break pro bono trip to Eastern North Carolina. After our first meeting on Thursday Feb. 19, I think it's safe to say that we, the participating students and attorneys, are pretty pumped.

During our first meeting, we discussed the details and plans for the trip, and signed up for our trip committees (obviously, I was lucky enough to snag a spot on the "blog" committee). We also received our training materials and heard a great lecture from Celia Pistolis, Legal Aid of NC, on all of the documents we will be using. Mark Dorosin and Sarah Krishnaraj from the Center for Civil Rights and Sylvia Novinsky, Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs at UNC Law, were also there to lend their support and insight.

For those of you who are just recently learning about this project - as this is the first trip of its kind, I would assume this to include most of you - here is a brief summary of the purpose, goals, and plans for our trip to Eastern NC (with thanks to Seema for writing it):

The Problem. African-Americans in the United States are losing land two and a half times faster than white landowners. This disproportionate trend has persisted to such extremes that African-Americans now own less than one percent of all privately-owned rural land in the U.S. The land loss contributes to the expansive wealth gap in this country such that on average black households have just one-third of the wealth of white households.

The Law. Much of the property owned by low-wealth and minority landowners has passed through generations without a will, creating fragmented land ownership interests called tenancies-in-common. This ownership interest is subject to North Carolina law governing partition sales, giving the owner of the property interest the right to force a sale of the property without the permission of the other tenants-in-common. Due to inequities in these laws, the lack of adequate legal representation, and growing development pressures, long held family land is often lost through partition sales.

What We Will Be Doing. Partnering with the UNC Center for Civil Rights and Legal Aid of North Carolina, 19 UNC Law students will assist in preparing wills and advanced directives for low wealth clients in seven rural, Eastern North Carolina counties. Our goal through this project is to give land owners the opportunity to decide how their property will be distributed and to reduce the vulnerabilities of land ownership of the tenancy-in-common.


We will gratefully accept any donations to help subsidize our travel costs. Thank you all so much for your support! All donations are tax deductible and you will receive a letter from UNC Law recognizing your gift. There are two ways to donate:

1. You may write a check payable to UNC School of Law, with “Pro Bono Discretionary Fund” in the memo line. Checks can be sent to: UNC School of Law Pro Bono Program, c/o Dean Sylvia Novinsky, Campus Box #3380, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.

2. Or you may donate online at After selecting your method of payment, please select “School of Law” as the University Designation, “Other” as the University Fund, and then indicate “Pro Bono Discretionary Fund” in the box for Other Instructions below that.

Finally, I'm listing below all of the students, faculty, and attorneys going on the trip. I'm looking forward to keeping you all posted on our thrilling adventures (and even if they are not entirely "thrilling," I'll still try to make them seem like adventures)!

2009 Eastern North Carolina Spring Break Team
Lucy Barrios
Corrine Belt
Evan Bolick
Saurabh Desai
Merab Faulkner
Lauren Gebhard
Rob Lamb
Claire Hunter
Lauren Joyner
Colin Justice
Seema Kakad
Dan Kelley
Zac Long
Jackson Mabry
Melissa Michaud
Madison Perry
Diana Santiago
Emily Wallwork
Augustus Willis

Mark Dorosin, Center for Civil Rights
Sarah Krishnaraj, Center for Civil Rights
Sylvia Novinsky, UNC Law, Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs