In August, there was just one working phone line at the public defender's office in New Orleans. The broken fax machine sat silent. Even the photocopier stopped copying.
It was exactly the kind of post-Hurricane Katrina chaos that attracted the likes of Brigid Ryan.
"I jumped at the opportunity even though it was a pretty disturbing experience," said Ryan, a second-year law student at University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.
Inspired by the overwhelming need for legal services for the indigent, Ryan is helping lead a return trip with three dozen students starting Sunday.
Some students, Ryan said, are from the Gulf region, which was heavily damaged during the storm. Others were inspired by heart-wrenching news accounts of the hurricane and its aftermath, and chose to aid in rebuilding efforts in the New Orleans area.
Still others drew inspiration from their legal training, hoping to use their skills in an area where some inmates have yet to see a lawyer.
The effort is part of a loose network of hundreds of law students across the country who have been organized by the national Student Hurricane Network. They plan to spend part of their semester break interviewing pretrial detainees on behalf of the city's beleaguered public defenders, poring over case files for defendants awaiting trial and, in some cases, helping represent clients in court.
The public service project caught the attention of Nina Wu, a first-year law student at Maryland who worked with homeless children and their parents before seeking a law degree.
"One of the most difficult things will be to establish trust," said Wu, 27.
Like the homeless children she once counseled in Washington, the inmates in New Orleans will likely test her understanding of the challenges they face, Wu said.
"It'll be a very delicate situation," she said. "We're from Maryland, and we're only staying a week."
After raising almost $19,000 from friends, family and the area legal community, the students will pay their way to New Orleans and save their limited funds by sleeping four to a room in a hotel offering heavily discounted rates. The funds will also pay for vans to shuttle students to clients in jails outside the city, according to Ryan.
At a training session yesterday, Douglas L. Colbert, a Maryland law professor who leads a law school clinic on indigent defense, warned them, "It's not going to be an easy trip."
Still, he said, the students' efforts were inspiring because they sought to stand up for those who "fall within the criminal class."
"There is a lot of hope now for people who have been lost and forgotten," Colbert said.
Much of yesterday's training focused on how the Maryland students should attempt to gain the confidence of their clients. They cannot pass themselves off as lawyers, Colbert said. But as interviewers inquiring about a client's personal history, they can lay the groundwork for lawyers to offer a well-prepared defense, he said.
Shakeya Currie, vice president of the school's black law student association and a third-year student at Maryland, cautioned that as interviewers, the students must consider their clients' criminal background, race, gender and family history.
Acknowledging a client's initial mistrust could help a detainee to open up and provide information essential for a successful defense, she said.
Michael Stallings, a third-year student from Baltimore, said he joined the project to help some of New Orleans' most vulnerable.
"In a lot of cases, I think we'll be able to show people how they can help themselves," said Stallings, who has interviewed prisoners in Maryland before in an effort to help in their legal proceedings.
But he added that the chance to see New Orleans after the storm also had an independent appeal.
"I hope I can help, but I also know it's going to a part of history," said Stallings, 26.
For more information about the project, go to www.law.umaryland.edu/studentorg/katrina/index.asp