By PBI Intern Julianne Alejos
Pro Bono Institute (PBI) had the great fortune to interview Tiela Chalmers, the Chief Executive Officer and General Counsel at Alameda County Bar Association, on how pro bono efforts may provide necessary support in natural disaster recovery. The success of the Alameda Legal First Responders program (ALFR) demonstrates how pro bono addresses the rise in demand for an effective disaster legal response network. “Ten years ago, we were still focused on earthquakes,” explains Chalmers, “and we still are working hard on that, but the fires shifted us significantly.” Over the course of 2022, a total of 18 natural disasters occurred in the United States. Disasters create a strong demand for legal services to assist with homeowner issues, insurance claims, and federal relief. As natural disasters continue to intensify, many of those severely impacted have very limited financial resources and require immediate legal assistance. Survivors’ legal and financial concerns may be addressed through pro bono services to support the recovery process.
With the dramatic shift in weather-related disasters, legal programs, such as ALFR, have responded to the increasing demand for pro bono assistance and the shortage of pro bono lawyers post-COVID. For victims of California natural disasters, the ALFR has coordinated and trained a responsive team of volunteer attorneys who are prepared to provide relief to victims’ critical needs. According to Chalmers, the ALFR has provided legal support to natural disaster victims in the form of “Free Legal Answers, a statewide hotline, remote in-person clinics, disaster relief clinic staffing, etc.” Through the framework of this program, law firms have developed “a partnership with a corporate legal department,” which expands the size and strengthens the efficiency of the disaster response network. Pro bono programs, like the ALFR, allow a collaborative network to be formed between law firms with private and public legal organizations in the provision of disaster relief aid.
Despite the fluctuations in media coverage and the nature of disasters, the program’s implementation of necessary adjustments allows volunteer engagement to be maintained. “Now, to be a Legal First Responder,” reveals Chalmers, “you just need to be an attorney committed to volunteering with us in any capacity, with any frequency.” Strategies such as bite-sized opportunities and no minimum commitment have encouraged attorneys who seek to serve their communities to volunteer with the ALFR. Chalmers highlighted how a spectrum of opportunities serves the expansion of lawyers’ versatile talent and community welfare. Opportunities such as the program’s Free Legal Answers platform allows volunteers to “try out different legal areas, and different service delivery models.” For law firms and attorneys seeking to engage in pro bono, disaster relief programs, such as the ALFR, can mobilize the legal community to serve the public interest in a critical time.
Read the full interview with Tiela Chalmers here.
If your firm or legal department is interested in providing legal assistance to victims of natural disasters, here are some pro bono resources to get you started:
- American Bar Association provides a variety of resources to support community attorneys and firms provide effective legal assistance to victims of natural disasters. Examples of programs include Free Legal Answers, Disaster Services Manual, and Disaster Legal Hotlines.
- Pro Bono Net, Equal Justice Works, & Lone Star Legal Aid partnered together to provide National Disaster Recovery & Resilience CLE Training. The recorded training provides an overview of how to navigate the legal landscape most effectively, in order to provide practical legal responses to aid in long-term disaster recovery.
- Pro Bono Net, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, and the Disaster Legal Assistance Collaborative partnered together to hold an upcoming series of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) educational training courses. The courses will provide an informative introduction to how to navigate the appeals process of FEMA’s disaster assistance decision.
As PBI was preparing to go to press with the following blog discussing disaster relief with an expert in such matters, the US was hit with more natural disasters, including the Maui wildfires and its tragic impacts. We are saddened by these events, which underscore the need for pro bono volunteers to gear themselves to assist with disaster recovery efforts. For those interested in helping in Hawaii, there are a variety of opportunities available. The Legal Aid Society of Hawaii has a form for interested volunteers here: https://www.legalaidhawaii.org/want-to-help.html. Organizations and individuals interested in assisting may also contact the John Vierra of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency at 808-733-4300, extension 548, or email MauiStrongAssist@hawaii.gov. Authorized attorneys may wish to explore providing assistance through Free Legal Answers. More information on the program in Hawaii can be found here: https://hawaii.freelegalanswers.org/. Also, for a library of disaster and recovery resources available to those across the United States visit: https://www.lawhelp.org/disasterlegalhelp.