After the Storms
Law student Jennifer Cunha provides relief to legal services organizations post-disaster
Published in 2012 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on December 12, 2012
Updated on October 22, 2019
After her first semester at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Jennifer Cunha felt disillusioned by her classes, which focused on contracts and torts. “I was always into the social justice thing, and I couldn’t find any relevance for what I wanted to do,” she says.
A trip to New Orleans changed all that.
Cunha joined Legal Assistance for Disaster Relief (then the Student Hurricane Network) in 2009, a group of UW student volunteers who travel to areas affected by natural disasters to provide legal aid during school breaks. Spending her winter break at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Cunha worked to try to discharge a client’s unpaid student loans after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his culinary school. “I actually got to work with a client. … That [experience] completely saved law school,” she says. “It reminded me why I was here.”
As a dual-degree student in law and public affairs, she later served as the organization’s president. In the wake of a disaster, Legal Services attorneys are frequently overwhelmed, and LADR helps handle daunting workloads. “Not only do people who would typically use their services all of a sudden have problems, but … people who lose homes or jobs because of the storm then become part of the clientele,” Cunha says.
The students’ help is welcome. “They don’t care if you’re a 1L or 3L,” she says. “It’s not infrequent for you to walk in the door and be handed a case and be expected to deal with it.”
AIDSLaw of Louisiana Inc. hosted LADR volunteers during the winters of 2011, 2012 and 2013. Cunha joined the 2011 and 2012 efforts. “When you have a traumatic event like Katrina, one behavioral response is … more high-risk behavior, so in Louisiana you saw this proliferation of HIV in populations that were displaced by the storm,” she says. “The cases were mostly people still trying to get home, but facing things like housing discrimination because they had acquired HIV.”
This year, however, during winter and spring break, Cunha traveled to a different state: New Jersey, to take on Hurricane Sandy’s immediate legal ramifications. “That really put the Gulf Coast stuff in perspective,” she says, “because I think what goes on in the Gulf [in terms of the legal claims] is what Jersey will be looking at in six years.” Working at Legal Services of New Jersey this winter, volunteers created resource guides to address concerns like FEMA claims and small business administration disaster loans.
Cunha’s dedication has also helped save LADR itself from disaster. In 2009, outside funding had disappeared after the national Student Hurricane Network dissolved. The next school year, the organization only had four members at UW. “The executive board was having conversations about just shutting it down,” she says. Now the group boasts 76 members, and 28 students traveled to New Orleans and New Jersey over winter and spring breaks this year, contributing nearly a thousand pro bono hours to free legal services.
Cunha says LADR’s strength is in providing students with real-life law experiences. “They’re saying, ‘Oh I didn’t pay any attention in contracts [class], but all of sudden I’m looking at a lease and I’m seeing why that was important,’” she says.
Outside of LADR, she has stayed involved in public service through academic clinics like the Domestic Violence & Immigration Clinic as well as internships, including one at the Wisconsin state public defender’s office. While she originally planned to go into public policy in Washington, now Cunha envisions a legal services career post-graduation. “I’m just so in love with the work that I could never see myself doing anything else,” she says.
She also encourages others to do pro bono work. “I think lawyers were lucky enough to have the opportunity to have a team of highly qualified educators sit them down and spell out the legal system for three-plus years straight. Given this and the history of our profession, I think we have an obligation to use that opportunity for good,” Cunha says. “Justice should be for everyone, not just those who can afford it.”