Photograph Taken By Lisa Tropez- Arceneaux
A word to Nola Black Professionals from Kenneth Hardin: “Be proud of your accomplishments but don’t buy into the notion that success happens instantaneously, as if hard work is not necessary. While it’s not easy being a black professional, don’t let that be an excuse to block ambition. I know that there are different challenges that we as black professionals go through. I know that there are probably few people near my age who have never had a moment of racism. Maybe you feel like your being hired is just to be the ‘token’ black person or the minority representation to meet a quota. Don’t let it be an excuse and don’t bring others down who won’t let it be an excuse. I’ve seen too many striving black people question and criticize other successful black people rather than accept and congratulate them. ‘Oh, it must be a mistake if you were chosen and not me.’ Don’t let that be you. Black professionals are a small fraction in the world today and only through support of others and leading by example can we assure that we add to diversity in the workplace rather than mark ourselves as a dying breed.”
Kenneth Hardin, a 29-year-old native of Lake Charles, LA and the first black male valedictorian of Iowa High School, considered his life as a lawyer at the age of 8. Throughout college, known for being a “social butterfly”, his path turned its course once or twice, but today he is a Staff Attorney for the Orleans Public Defenders Office, a job that requires his attention and expertise 365 days a year, 24/7. Unlike a private attorney, Kenneth and his clients do not have the luxury of choosing each other. A public defender is appointed by a judge to clients who are unable to afford a private lawyer and often do not approach the situation with open arms and conversation. This challenge is one that a passionate professional like Mr.Hardin seems to, with stride, surpass.
As a public defender, Mr. Hardin deals with many misconceptions within his profession. Many of his clients believe misconceptions that public defenders are really “Public Pretenders” because they don’t know what they’re doing, that they “really didn’t go to law school”, or that they always opt for a plea bargain to ensure a larger paycheck at the end of the month. However, the reality is that public defenders spend more time in court and approximately 80% of court dockets are presumptuously indigent people—all in a city with the highest homicide rate per capita [New Orleans] and in a state with the highest incarceration rate per capita [Louisiana] where public defender salaries are not in the same bracket as that of private lawyers.
“I hope to help change the perception of the public defender—from the way I dress to what I say to how I say it. In everything I do, I strive to give the highest form of representation that I can and I do that by showing rather than verbalizing the opposite of many of my clients’ misconceptions. Hopefully, by doing that, people will see me as great defense attorney that happens to be a public defender. To me, the only things that separate me from my clients are a mistake and a lay-off—I simply haven’t had the misfortune of experiencing both at the same time. The tragedy surrounding many of our clients is the risk of trial. Many of our clients are facing 20 years to life because of their prior criminal record. If a client has a very bad case and is offered a plea bargain, it’s hard to look a client in the eye and say ‘you may not win.’ I never give my word on something I can’t guarantee. I’d love to say I will always win, but I have to look beyond my ego and say what I think the outcome could be based on my expertise and experience. Many times, clients have to face difficult decisions such as taking 5 years in jail in a plea bargain or rolling the dice and risking the 20 years to life should we lose at trial. So, as a public defender, we sometimes have these difficult conversations and as a result, we take a lot of the blame from angry clients. This harsh reality makes me think about the imperfection of our criminal justice system: sometimes it seems that it’s easy to call everyone a victim until you’re falsely accused and it’s also easy to say everyone is innocent until you’re a victim. This is why I try to avoid debating my feelings about law and simply argue the facts. When you think of it that way, it defines the purpose for what I do: defend the constitutional rights of our New Orleans citizens.”
“I save letters from my clients—it motivates me. They thank me by telling me I’ve fought for them. I once had a man start crying during our first client meeting. To this day, what he said sticks with me: he told me that in 36 years of existence, no one has ever cared to write down what he says or thinks.”
What did you aspire to be when you were a young man? Funny, a lawyer, and then a musician. Music was my first love and I even attended LSU on a music scholarship. However, I felt that music was not a stable career financially. I went back to my childhood fantasy of being a lawyer. My family kept a bio I made when I was 8 that said I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. I don’t even remember wanting to be a lawyer so badly, but that’s proof.
What took you down this path? “In college I made up my mind that I will actively take this role to do this [law]. I took a business law class and it was interesting! I liked the idea of arguing my point and speaking in front of people. I really liked the idea of being someone’s voice. The thought of affecting my community through the criminal justice truly inspired me. After graduating from LSU in ’06, I took the LSAT and GMAT because I was interested in both law and finance. Because I wanted to see what life was like outside of Louisiana, I decided to leave and attended Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, TX. I liked living in Houston where there was a larger black professional community. You see, my experience growing up in South Louisiana is that most people seem to take to only what they know growing up. Anything different was foreign and often criticized,” and was for Mr. Hardin until he moved to Houston where he came in contact with many different cultures. “Law school was a place that enlightened me. I learned that “our” way is not always the right side up—meaning how we (Louisianans) view politics, the words we say, the law, our interaction with others, etc.” Kenneth began to understand that not everything in Louisiana is everything there is and really had to apply that to Nola living, otherwise known as “The United States of New Orleans.” “New Orleans is the leader of this state, but this city and even more so the state as a whole is regressive when it comes to education and opportunity though it can be hard to admit. For me, I had to leave to see that. I believe New Orleans is the greatest city in the world but our generation has work to do to show others what we already know. We, as young black professionals, have to lead by example. I do not have children yet but when I do, I hope to be able to tell them you can have the very best of everything in Louisiana.” This is also what brought Kenneth back to Louisiana, and New Orleans, which he considers his second home.
Major accomplishments in your life: “Let me preface this answer by saying I feel like I’m always working toward my next goal so it’s hard to feel as if I have accomplished anything yet. Opportunities are what our forefathers fought for us to take advantage of, so I’m merely carrying on that mantle of seeking and never settling. I don’t want to be average I want to be GREAT! But I have to say my first accomplishment is maintaining a healthy relationship—when two people are overly ambitious and married to their careers, it can be a challenge to make time for each other. Next would have to be winning my first jury trial. For once, it was nice to see the result mirror the effort of everything I put into the case. In that moment when the verdict was announced, I didn’t think of money, how hard my job is, or my caseload—all I cared about was my client going back to his family and community. It was not just a victory. I needed that reminder that justice does exist!
Place these 6 things in a hierarchical order: Health, wealth, family, friends, and religion
1. Religion: My relationship with God. I know one thing: regardless of who or what your deity is, your faith is with you when you enter this world alone and when you leave alone. That’s my source and what I live for.
2. Family/Friends: They keep you grounded—remind you where you came from so you can get where you’re going. If you’re being too optimistic or too pessimistic, family can check you on where you should be.
3. Health: You can’t work, can’t be there for family, and can’t live out ambitions if you aren’t healthy.
4. Work: 5 years ago I would’ve said wealth next, but you have to love what you do because I believe if you love what you do, it’ll lead to wealth.
5. Wealth: I don’t have to be rich to be happy. For me, wealth means being able to meet your expenses, satisfy your needs, and accomplish your desires.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years, 20 years? I’m still learning myself as a person and even more so as a lawyer. I hope to be in a position to inspire our community beyond being a student of the law. Whether that is in politics or as a judge, I do not know— I just want to affect the community in a great way.
Kenneth is currently a member of the Southern Public Defenders Training Center, The Defender Training Institute, The Louisiana Bar Association, Kappa Kappa Psi, Kappa Alpha Psi, and is a licensed notary.