Law graduate thrives on passion for service: ‘Her heart is in it’

Annelise Ernst expected to make social work her life’s calling, but when she decided to attend Tulane Law School instead, she went on a search for a “meaningful way to help others.”

Three years later, Ernst, who will graduate May 18 with a J.D. in the Class of 2024, spent much of her law school years helping other Tulanians with their legal needs – rising to become a student Director of the Tulane Legal Assistance Program, or TULAP.  When she joined TULAP in 2021, not only was the program in transition because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also was dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.


In the fall, Ernst (center) was sworn-in as a student attorney in the Civil Rights & Federal Practice Clinic.
In the fall, Ernst (center) was sworn-in as a student attorney in the Civil Rights & Federal Practice Clinic. 


"Annelise helped TULAP transition back to normal after the pandemic and we are now thriving thanks, in large part, to her leadership,”  said Carolyn Cooper, Supervising Attorney at TULAP.  “She has this incredible positive energy and tenacity that is present throughout everything she does. I was impressed by all of the things she did and was able to accomplish during her time in law school and am excited to see where her path continues."

The effort has helped TULAP navigate challenges even beyond the pandemic and hurricanes. 

“Her legacy with TULAP will continue long after she graduates," Cooper added. "I feel incredibly fortunate that she chose us to be a part of her law school experience."

 Ernst took her TULAP experience – running the day-to-day operations of an organization that serves hundreds of clients each year – and has embraced the impact it had on her community and her personally. She was born and raised in New Orleans, graduated from Ursuline Academy, and naturally focused on how she could help others in her hometown.

“Over time, I just became more and more involved with the organization and really enjoyed it,” said Ernst.  “We really tried to make it the best organization it could be.”

To become a TULAP director – and there are two spots each year – a candidate must have worked just about every role within the organization during their first and second year of law school, and even then, the positions are competitive.

TULAP serves Tulane students and employees on both civil, criminal, and immigration matters, providing free to low-cost legal assistance and referrals to attorneys in the community. Civil matters include landlord/tenant matters, commercial law, estate planning advice and other issues, while criminal matters can range from traffic tickets and misdemeanors, or any other criminal issues.

 As one of 24 clerks her first year with TULAP,  she learned how to conduct client interviews, schedule appointments with attorneys and otherwise be the liaison between clients and TULAP. Clerks earn pro bono hours for their work with TULAP; as she transitioned to become Assistant Director of the Civil Program her second year, and into the Director role her 3L year, she received a modest stipend for her work.


As a student, too, she continued to do work centered on public service. She spent her 1L summer working for the Innocence Project, helping the nonprofit New Orleans organization on their post-conviction cases. She landed a competitive fellowship, too, becoming a summer Access to Justice Fellow, sponsored by Phelps Dunbar, LLP. She rotated working with civil legal aid organizations, to “really understand Louisiana’s civil legal aid system and the world of public interest work,” Ernst said. “I absolutely loved it.”

As a rising 2L, she found a way to do even more. She wrote onto the Tulane Law Review and served as an articles editor her 3L year. She externed for the Promise of Justice Initiative, working with them on their strategic criminal litigation team. She also became an academic tutor, helping other law students hone their skills in legal writing and exam-taking skills, then served as a 3L senior fellow for the first-year Legal Research and Writing course.

During her 2L summer, she also served as a volunteer intern for Judge Catharina Haynes of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where she assisted judicial clerks with research, writing, and proofreading tasks and observed oral argument sittings. Afterwards, she returned to Phelps for the second half of her summer.

And, she landed a coveted spot in the Tulane Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic working with its Director, Sam Brandao on federal civil rights litigation.


Ernst (right) during her 2L internship at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ernst (right) during her 2L internship at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.


“With her excellent research, fluid writing, and crackerjack litigation skills, Annelise is a fierce and thoughtful advocate for her clinic clients,” said Brandao (L’12). “Her professional approach puts their needs and goals at the center of the strategic discussion. She's an empathetic and effective communicator, with a ton of warmth and humor, not to mention supernatural grace under pressure.”

She is a well-rounded litigator, said Brandao, and offered one more bit of high praise: “She really checks all the boxes, and her heart is in it. I hope I never need a lawyer, but if I do, I hope she's available.”

Ernst, who earned a bachelor of arts from Brown University in 2021,  said she knew she made the right choice in going to law school because she felt that “social work could not always holistically address the systemic nature of people’s issues. Law more broadly addressed the structural issues, and that was appealing to me."

All the hard work has paid off. After going through the process of applying for judicial clerkships, Ernst was offered one with the Honorable Susie Morgan of the Eastern District of Louisiana.

“I want to use my J.D. to help others and I see helping others as such a privilege,” said Ernst.

Whether working for TULAP assisting Tulanians with legal concerns or with the Civil Rights Clinic, where legal strategies are client-centered, Ernst said she has seen how empowering communities with the tools to address systemic challenges leads to lasting change.

“Specifically in the (Civil Rights) clinic, the work has been so meaningful and powerful, knowing that you are working on a real case that will affect real people. The ability to strategize together as a clinic team has really helped me develop my litigation brain, all on behalf of our clients," she said."The experience has reminded me of why I wanted to go into public service.”

Her advice to other law students considering law and public service: “Law school really incentivizes you to think mostly about yourself. But it is up to you to figure out how you can also leverage your unique skill set and access to the legal system for others. It’s a balance: What can I do to move this issue forward and how can I use all this privilege to be of assistance? Doing this work is infinitely rewarding.”