Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas last August as a Category 4 tropical storm, leaving a trail of death and devastation as catastrophic flooding swamped Houston and surrounding areas. Eighty-two people were killed, and damages totaled $125 billion, making it one of the deadliest and costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
For Ana Laurel, it was personal. Laurel, a third-year law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, grew up in Port Lavaca, Texas, a small Gulf Coast city that was among those battered by the storm. This summer, she is back home helping residents recover, providing legal assistance as a student fellow in the Rural Summer Legal Corps.
“I learned about the RSLC through the Native American Law Students Association, and when I went through the descriptions, I found that Texas RioGrande Legal Aid was looking for a summer law clerk to work on their disaster relief team,” Laurel said. “Having grown up mostly on the coast, I’ve lived through many different hurricanes and evacuations, and so I became interested for that reason.”
When Laurel learned that she would specifically be serving, among other affected cities, her tiny hometown, she knew she needed to apply.
Her parents suffered roof damage at their home in Port Lavaca, and as frustrating as their experience has been, Laurel knows they are more fortunate than most residents in the area.
“People are still homeless, and they’re still out of options,” she said.
Rural Summer Legal Corps is a joint program of a pair of Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizations: Equal Justice Works, which focuses on careers in public service for lawyers, and Legal Services Corporation, which provides funding for civil legal aid to Americans who otherwise cannot afford it. RSLC focuses on underserved rural communities, providing direct legal services. The student fellows complete 300 hours of work in an 8- to 10-week period, during which they gain hands-on experience while engaging in community outreach and education.
“Equal Justice Works recruited highly qualified candidates for Rural Summer Legal Corps through outreach to law schools across the nation, as well as public-interest job fairs and online hubs,” said Kristen Uhler-McKeown, director of public programs at Equal Justice Works. “Ana, and the rest of the talented law students selected, show passion and motivation to improve access to justice for rural residents. We look forward to seeing the incredible impact that they will have on their host organizations and the communities they serve this summer.”
Kate Rosier, director of ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program, says Laurel is the ideal fit for such a fellowship.
“Ana is very passionate about serving others and making sure all people have access to justice,” Rosier said. “We need more attorneys like Ana.”
Given the option of applying to three different legal-aid organizations, the choice was simple for Laurel when she found out Texas RioGrande Legal Aid was doing disaster relief work in her hometown. The nonprofit provides free legal services to low-income residents in 68 counties across Texas, and is the third-largest provider of legal services in the nation, assisting about 25,000 clients per year.
“I’m working on a disaster relief team with fantastic women who work at TRLA offices all over Texas,” Laurel said. “My supervisor is located in Corpus, and she’s a walking FEMA encyclopedia. I have already learned so much from her. More specifically, I'm working on a few research projects that have to do with various FEMA issues and two projects involving pooling various resources together for people affected by hurricanes and for lawyers who volunteer their time to disaster relief work.”
She added, “as a woman who was raised by strong women, it has always meant a lot to me to work under other strong women. I’ve been lucky in my law school career thus far because at every position I’ve taken as an intern or extern, I’ve worked for women.”
And when helping desperate clients get assistance from big government organizations, Laurel has learned that strength and tenacity are required.
“I'm also learning how to navigate a seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic institution that holds the lives of so many vulnerable citizens in its hands,” Laurel said. “People often grow exacerbated with FEMA and quit before getting the assistance they so desperately need. What interests me about the work the women I work with are doing is that they never quit or get overwhelmed by the red tape.”
“I’ve always told people I enjoy corporate law and tribal/federal Indian law because there’s so much potential for creativity. Here is no different,” she continued. “When you can’t accept the word ‘no’ because your client’s lives and well-being are depending on ‘yes,’ then you find alternate routes to arrive at that ‘yes.’ However long it takes.”
And that desire to serve as an advocate is what led Laurel to seek a legal career. Before enrolling in law school, she had worked as the managing director for Voices Breaking Boundaries, a community arts nonprofit in Houston.
“While we did a lot of work that I am very proud of at VBB, people in the communities with whom we were working faced a lot of issues that transcended the healing capacity of art,” she said. “I realized I wanted to become a lawyer. Whether it be to advocate for them in property disputes, in domestic violence situations, in employment disputes, and/or immigration. Though I had been peripherally connected to these issues through art and activism, I just wanted to commit myself to their causes in a different way. So I decided to take the LSAT and see what happened.”
Her partner at the time, to whom she is now married, was living in Arizona, so Laurel relocated. And she was impressed by ASU Law.
“Ultimately, what drew me to ASU was its Indian Legal Program,” she said. “Before I even applied, I had been sent to Kate Rosier, the director. I admired what the ILP was doing, both in their academic and nonprofit capacities, and meeting with Kate made my decision to attend ASU much easier.”
And since arriving at ASU Law, Laurel has seized on the abundant learning opportunities, inside the classroom and beyond. The Rural Summer Legal Corps fellowship is just the latest step in that journey.
“During my time in law school, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several different types of internships in various fields,” she said. “I’ve worked in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Legal Services Office and Tribal Court, and I’ve worked as a diversity writing fellow at Fennemore Craig, PC. Now I'm working in South Texas for legal aid. The practice of law demands so much of us, and I want to be as prepared and well-rounded for wherever I am most needed after law school.”