Bench and Bar 2019
Over 14 law firms joined three judges and Habitat partner family Shelita Gordon on the build site in September. Trading in gavels and briefcases for hammers and toolbelts, the legal professionals spent a warm Saturday painting, siding, and roofing with Habitat to help build affordable housing.
“During the day, we’re dictating, pleading, boring things like that,” said Chuck Talley of Kean Miller, “whereas, you get to come out here, work with your hands, you get to see something mold right before your eyes. The end of the day, you’ve got a sense of accomplishment, versus our normal work, where you can work on something a couple of years and not see that.”
Every participating firm put together a small group to join the build.
“There was some excitement,” said Christopher Meeks of Galloway Johnson. “We have a good group of people who wanted to come out. It’s very different not sitting at a desk all day, but we’re getting out and getting dirty for a good cause.”
For many, the motivation to be part of Bench and Bar Build was to connect with the community.
“The legal community needs to play their part in bringing the city back,” said Bill Wright of Deutsch Kerrigan, a long-time board member with Habitat. “Habitat is a leader in providing affordable housing. It’s a good fit. It’s nice to not be arguing with them like we usually do. It’s good fun to network with other attorneys and do good.”
Shelley Tannehill of Baker Donelson said, “I think it’s good to see lawyers get out here and do something different. New Orleans legal community is very small, so it’s good to see us come together.”
The judges on site agreed: “I think it is extremely important that we encourage members of the bar to be apart of the community. Right now one of the critical issues in the city is the issue of affordable housing. For me, as a judge, I have to be willing to show up and to show that I know this is an important issue and one that we have to be on the front line for,” said Judge Piper D. Griffin.
Judge Regina Bartholomew Woods said, “We have a huge housing desert in the New Orleans area right now. If Habitat can put a dent in the housing desert, then it means there can be a world of change to a whole generation of people. So if you help just one person have access to an affordable home, that whole generation is forever changed.”
The build was a great chance for networking. Young lawyers got to meet judges, judges connected with the attorneys they see every week in their court rooms, and senior partners got to visit with new members of their firms. And for some, it was a chance to meet people they’d only met by email. Dara Delger, a legal assistant with Gainsbourgh Benjamin, said, “It’s been great getting to know people I’ve worked with, putting a face with the names.”
For the accountants at Bourgeois Bennett, who work closely with legal professionals on economic damages, it was a chance to do things they had never done before.
NOAHH board member Tyler Nichols of Bourgeois Bennett said, “We jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this. As long as I’ve been involved, I’ve never gotten to swing a hammer. I’m gonna be sore tomorrow, but it’s gonna be a good sore. It’s been great being part of something bigger than me.”
Others came to the table with long-time Habitat experience. Andy Lee served on the Habitat board in the 90s, becoming board president by the early 2000s. He was part of the board during Hurricane Katrina, and he helped with previous Bench and Bar Builds: “I’m really proud to be involved again. I always like to get out and get on the roof. I like to get perspective and see everything that’s going on.”
The build also let the legal professionals meet with Habitat partner family Shelita Gordon. Tom Forbes of Chaffe McCall law firm said, “I’ve seen new home owners putting in sweat with the rest of us and I am impressed with the effort that everyone puts in.”
Many of the legal professionals, lawyers, and judges had been out on site before, including with last year’s Bench and Bar Build. Judge Robin Pittman related a meaningful experience from her previous times building: “[I saw] the look on the homeowners face of humbleness and appreciation when she finally had hope that she would be in her home by Christmas for her daughter.”
For Regina Valenti of Herman Herman and Katz, the build had her reflecting her home, “Home means New Orleans and everything that comes with New Orleans. There is just no better place to be.”