Disaster Relief: Lawyers Pitching In

Mother Nature is wreaking havoc across the United States and around the world.  Images of disaster-stricken towns and cities feature prominently and regularly in recent news programming.  Naturally, these images of desperation ignite in all of us a desire to take action.  Lawyers are no exception.  In the wake of a seemingly endless string of floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes, lawyers are interested in providing pro bono assistance to the victims.  And as always, The PBI can offer thoughts on the many ways for attorneys to lend a hand.

Staffing Clinics and Hotlines
Staffing clinics and hotlines are time-limited ways for lawyers to offer assistance.  Often, local universities or legal aid organizations coordinate clinics, which may provide immediate legal assistance to victims on issues ranging from FEMA claims to insurance to child custody.

When the White House declared several counties in Tennessee as disaster areas last month, the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services activated its toll-free hotline.  The hotline is staffed by volunteer attorneys who conduct intake and, if appropriate, refer callers to pro bono attorneys to address the callers’ legal issues.

Developing Legal Resources and Manuals
Lawyers can also help by developing legal resources for affected populations.  After Hurricane Katrina, law students created an online manual for lawyers and Gulf Coast residents examining state and federal laws that hurricane survivors may encounter as they contend with insurance claims, landlord-tenant disputes, bankruptcy filings, and consumer scams.  Morrison & Foerster LLP* and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP* are two firms that produced legal manuals for those on the Gulf Coast impacted by hurricanes.

Litigating on Behalf of Victims
In response to Hurricane Katrina, lawyers worked with legal advocacy groups such as Advancement Project in litigation that opposed the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ attempts to demolish viable public housing complexes without providing suitable relocation housing to displaced residents.  Advancement Project currently works with lawyers to investigate post-Katrina labor conditions, advocate for marginalized communities, and identify and broker legal and other resources.

Visiting the Disaster Site
While it is unadvisable to simply jump on the first flight to a disaster area and start meeting with clients, thoughtful, coordinated efforts onsite can be an effective way to help.

Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the surrounding areas lacked the pro bono infrastructure necessary for lawyers to do their part.  Citigroup Inc.** attorney David Goldberg wasn’t discouraged — instead, he packed his bags and headed to the Big Easy to learn how he could help and, eventually, organize the structure that would allow his legal department to assist.  With the support of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) and Stroock, Stroock & Lavan LLP*, David and roughly 15 other members of the Citigroup legal department logged hundreds of hours during five trips to the Gulf Coast.  Citigroup lawyers helped to staff several day-long legal clinics coordinated by Lawyers’ Committee and the Mississippi Center for Justice. The clinics consisted of a series of one-on-one consultations with hurricane victims covering a range of issues related to, among others, insurance, real estate, the Small Business Association, and FEMA.  Lawyers unable to travel did their part at home by working on appeals to FEMA.

In response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a delegation of law firms led by Reed Smith LLP* traveled to the country to conduct a fact-finding mission with regard to the lack of security and the predominance of gender-based violence following the earthquake.  The team identified appropriate candidates for humanitarian parole to the U.S.

Have you heard of other ways to pitch in following a natural disaster? Is your firm or legal department currently working on disaster-related projects?  If so, we’d love to hear from you. 

*denotes Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
**denotes Signatory to the Corporate Pro Bono ChallengeSM