As Eric Ha, ’03, was riding the train to his job at Sidley Austin one summer day last year, he received a phone call from his wife, Liz. “I just heard a story on the radio,” she told him. “You have to read about it. We have to do something.”
Later that day he did read about the situation she had mentioned, concerning events in Jena, Louisiana, where six African-American high school students were accused of having beaten a white student. The trial of the first of the accused students was underway. Although he was sixteen at the time of the assault, he was being tried as an adult, originally charged with attempted murder.
Many circumstances surrounding the case elevated it to considerable national attention. Before the beating incident, racial tensions at the school and in the town had flared after some white students hung nooses in a tree on campus and then were perceived by many as having been laxly disciplined for their action. All of the members of the jury in the trial that was underway were white. The local district attorney had made a statement that many considered inflammatory.
Ha agreed with his wife that he needed to act. “I grew up in the South, where discrimination and racial prejudice were not uncommon. The overall circumstances of the Jena case, and especially the image of the nooses, were deeply troubling,” he says. He took up the issue with his partner mentor at Sidley, Evan Westerfield, ’93, and Westerfield encouraged him to pursue a pro bono engagement to provide assistance to the Louisiana-based defense team.
“I was so impressed by how extraordinarily supportive the entire firm was in helping me create this engagement and then encouraging me and others to work on it,” Ha recounts. At the height of the firm’s involvement, eight associates were dedicating substantial amounts of time to Jena matters. Westerfield says, “Eric organized the associates and assigned projects. He wrote strong briefs on key issues that proved to have a major influence . . . . Throughout, Eric managed the matter virtually by himself, from the engagement to client interactions to the supervision of others’ work.” The Louisiana-based lead counsel in one of the cases wrote, “[T]here is no doubt that Eric's contribution has been enormous for the defendant.”
Awarded Sidley’s highly regarded Thomas H. Morsch Pro Bono Service Award for his efforts, Ha donated the monetary component of his award to the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. “My experience at the Law School really transformed me, and this was a way for me to give something back as a reflection of my gratitude,” he explains. “Through the employment discrimination clinic with Professor Schmidt, through many of my courses—particularly those with Professor Strauss, but many others, too—and just by knowing so many students and faculty who cared deeply about justice, I came to understand that along with our many opportunities and advantages comes a significant responsibility to serve others and to help preserve the rule of law. There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘Jena 6’ in the media. My commitment, and that of my Sidley team members, was to the cause of justice, and I think we helped serve that cause well.”
Today Ha, who is a member of Sidley’s Environmental Practice Group, continues to provide pro bono services to the Jena defendants. “To have work that I love at a firm I admire—I am so fortunate and so grateful,” he says. Ha and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child, Bethany, earlier this year.