October 07, 2015
Attorney Jessica Wood (L ’14), the first Lutz Family Public Interest Fellow, explains her work with abused and neglected children through a new collaboration between Tulane Law School and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. The agency is led by Tulane alums: Executive Director Laura Tuggle (L ’87, left) and Deputy Director Roxanne Newman (L ’93, middle).
When Jessica Wood (L ’14) arrived at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services as a new lawyer in November 2014, she filled a critical need at an agency that had been forced to trim staff because of severe funding cuts two years earlier.
By taking on a share of cases involving abused and neglected children in the state’s foster care system, Wood has eased caseload pressures on other SLLS attorneys so they can devote more time to client needs such as home visits and family conferences.
Wood’s contributions already have shown the value of the Lutz Family Public Interest Fellowship, a new collaboration between Tulane Law School and SLLS, Louisiana’s largest provider of free civil legal aid for low-income residents.
Through a gift from corporate attorney Laurent C. Lutz (L ’86), the law school and the agency (via a Louisiana Bar Foundation grant) share the cost of each fellow’s salary. The result: an opportunity for new graduates to start practicing right away while serving the community.
“Having this additional resource really allowed us to continue services to a very needy population,” said SLLS Executive Director Laura Tuggle (L ’87). “Jessica has been a tremendous asset to us. Everyone loves to work with her. She’s such a great fit.”
Lutz is executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Sallie Mae, a financial services company that offers college savings plans, loans and other products and services to help families save, plan and pay for higher education. In creating the fellowship, he said his family hoped to “give new Tulane lawyers opportunities to follow their aspirations to help others,” with a focus on improving children’s lives. Lutz and his family recently expanded their gift to fund two fellowships for 2015-16.
Wood said she has loved her work “more than I could have imagined.”
Though as a student she had gained experience through Tulane’s Domestic Violence Clinic in working with clients, drafting pleadings and appearing in court, the fellowship has taken her into new territory covered by the Children’s Code. “My eyes were opened to an area of law I wouldn’t otherwise have known about,” she said.
With a caseload of about 100 clients, Wood represents children from newborns to 18-year-olds, interviewing those who are old enough to express their wishes, attending court hearings and making visits to her clients’ schools and homes. She advocates for the children’s wishes, whether it’s reunification with parents, adoption, supervised custody or another arrangement that is safe and stable.
“It’s been an incredible experience, and I can’t even believe how much I’ve learned,” she said.
When her fellowship ends in November, Wood plans to stay with SLLS.
The program is another aspect of the law school’s long support for the legal services mission. Tulane Law students volunteer thousands of pro bono hours at the agency. SLLS Deputy Director Roxanne Newman (L ’93) said she attended Tulane specifically to prepare for a career in public interest law, and she has been doing legal services work since 1999.
Josephine Vanderhorst (L ’15), one of the next Lutz fellows, will be assigned to represent children in the Baton Rouge office, assisting an attorney who handles more than 200 cases and covers multiple parishes. The second 2015-16 fellow, Hannah Groedel (L ’15), will work in Jefferson Parish to help meet the needs of a rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population.
“As a Tulane alum, I am so excited about this new partnership and Mr. Lutz’s support in advancing justice together while providing opportunities to recent graduates,” Tuggle said.