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August 2023

Pro Bono & Natural Disaster Recovery

Interview with Tiela Chalmers, CEO, Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda

As PBI was preparing to go to press with the following interview and blog discussing disaster relief with an expert in such matters, the U.S. 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.

What are some common challenges law firms have trying to participate in pro bono regarding natural disasters from your perspective and experience?


  • The first challenge is often that it’s hard sometimes for folks new to this area to imagine what legal issues there would be related to disasters. So first we have to do a good job to explain the many legal issues that arise – first landlord-tenant or homeowner issues and employment problems, then FEMA denials, insurance claim problems, consumer issues, etc.
  • Many of the disaster legal services needs can readily be met by attorneys in large law firms: FEMA appeals are particularly well-suited, and housing and consumer issues also work well. The big category of cases that large law firms cannot usually handle is insurance problems. For these, we generally go to the plaintiffs’ bar.
  • Of course, there is also the issue of whether the attorneys are admitted in the state where the disaster is. Many states have what is called the “Katrina Rule,” which allows attorneys from other states to practice in that state when there has been a major disaster. In California, we are lucky to have a large state, so that even if attorneys in the location of the disaster are impacted and unable to volunteer, there are still many attorneys in other areas of the state able to volunteer.
  • I guess the other challenge is that some of our service delivery models after a disaster require attorneys to have some breadth of knowledge. For example, we staff Disaster Recovery Centers, or answer the hotline, and you never know what areas of law you will get questions in. Anyone can watch our 8 hours of training and be fairly ready (with materials on hand) – but often large firm attorneys don’t feel comfortable with “on the spot” responses, so they tend to like better those assignments where someone has already screened the client, and they can prepare in advance by reviewing the materials.

From your perspective, how has the rise of the year-long season of wildfires in California given rise to pro bono work?


  • I’m not sure it’s given rise to it, but it has definitely affected it. To some extent the impact is for the worse – when we had a “fire season” and one or two huge events with lots of press, it was easier to recruit volunteers. You see these horrific videos on TV and you want to help. And we got pretty good (as a community) at capturing that interest in the first week of the disaster. But every year the nature of disasters changes. We have them all year round (that’s a bad thing). People’s issues last for years (that’s not new, but it’s unfolding in California as we still have clients with issues from the 2017 fires.) And the disasters themselves are smaller, as California gets better at preventing and defending. (That, of course, is a great thing.) So each year we have to adjust. So we:
    • Try to keep volunteers engaged all year round with the clients who have lingering issues.
    • Try to keep up interest despite the more diffused press coverage (there’s no magic pill for this).
    • Have learned to address new problems, like PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoffs) – in certain conditions the utilities shut down power to avoid fire, which is good, but for clients who need power for medication, medical equipment, etc., it’s a problem. It also has an impact on food insecure folks who cannot afford to lose a refrigerator’s worth of food.

What were some unanticipated challenges that arose when creating your program Legal First Responders? What were some difficulties in implementing the program in its beginning stages?


  • I should say first that I got the idea for the name when we learned in 2017 that there was a really troubling episode at one of the Disaster Recovery Centers. At that time, it was still a challenge to ensure that FEMA would let legal aid in to the DRC’s, as they were leery of ambulance chasing lawyers. Ironically, because in Sonoma a particularly scummy lawyer made himself a nylon jacket with “LAWYER” on the back in big letters, kind of like the FBI, and walked around the DRC offering “help” and trying to sign up clients to sue the utilities. I thought, we need to use their methods to do GOOD work!
  • When we began, we wanted to have a cadre of pro bono attorneys on standby for when the next big disaster came around. Back then, it was harder to recruit volunteers for a disaster when we weren’t having a disaster. (All of us are experts at denial – THAT won’t happen again – but perhaps nowhere more so than California, where earthquake danger is something, we are well-practiced at trying not to think about.) So, we came up with the name as a kind of fun way to move people to join.
  • We also faced the possibility that the attorneys would not be needed in a particular year (and yet we wanted to offer the American Lawyer minimum hour guarantee as a way to incentivize joining). So, we had to try to persuade law firms to allow the time attorneys spend in our training programs to count as pro bono. Most firms do not count training as pro bono hours, but firms were great about adjusting in light of the need to be prepared.
  • With the changing economy as well as the changing nature of disasters, we have moved away from a minimum commitment. Now, to be a Legal First Responder, you just need to be an attorney committed to volunteering with us in any capacity, with any frequency. What we hope is that you will see yourself as part of a team, and volunteer frequently. (We don’t have jackets yet, but I’m hoping.)

How can Legal First Responders and its resources be expanded and applied to other states? Can it be easily replicated in other areas of the country or used to respond to international natural disasters?


  • I think it’s a concept that can be easily applied, particularly in its current iteration. It’s basically just a catchy name to encourage attorneys to be part of a team. I’d love to see a partnership of corporate and law firm attorneys get into it and make jackets!
  • Internationally, I’m not sure I could say. Of course, it’s much trickier – are there attorneys able to practice in the location of the disaster? What about training? I would defer to my colleagues in international work on that.
  • One thing that has been incredibly helpful is that Morrison & Foerster has taken on annually publishing its Helping Handbook
    • A handbook summarizing the law both for the public and for volunteers. This resource is incredible, and other firms or legal departments doing this for other states would be incredible!!!!

With a shortage of lawyers for the increased number of cases post-covid, what are some steps Legal First Responders has taken to combat the problem?


  • As always, we try to make opportunities as bite-sized as possible. When I was a newer attorney, I took pro bono cases in a bunch of different areas, experimenting with what spoke to me (and what didn’t). I think that’s still a common experience for newer attorneys, and we try to give them a chance to try out different legal areas, and different service delivery models. We always have a spectrum of opportunities – answer a phone call, draft an answer to an online question, staff a remote or in-person clinic, do a know-your-rights presentation, take a case.
  • Our Free Legal Answers platform has been particularly popular, because it is “asynchronous.” Or, in a term I learned from the ABA, it offers you the chance to do Pro Bono in Your Pajamas. Clients post a disaster-related question in on online platform (hosted by the ABA). Volunteers review all the questions posted and select one they want to answer. They draft an answer to the question, and submit it to us, and we forward it to an expert in that field for review and editing. Then it is posted back to the client. It’s real legal advice, but you have time to research if you like, and you have the back-stop of expert review. And you can do the whole thing at 3 am if you like, or over a couple of days. Flexible timing seems to be the key these days.

Given your experience, what is the best way for law firms or corporate law departments to engage in pro bono work in natural disasters?


  • As noted above, Free Legal Answers is one of the best ways, but I don’t think there’s one best way. But I will say that I think that firms and law departments get the most bang from their buck, so to speak, in pro bono, if they have a mix of individual attorney-driven opportunities, and a group focus. For those attorneys who are passionate about one area or one cause, you want to be able to let them follow that passion. But the firm/legal department gets a lot of benefit from adopting one or two projects and taking them on as a group. For example, if the firm decides that one focus is disaster, it can train attorneys, it can include newer attorneys who aren’t sure what their passions are. It can build a partnership with a corporate legal department. This also means that there are opportunities for non-attorneys (helping to run clinics, or volunteering with the Red Cross, for example). It also offers opportunities for group bonding, good PR, and, of course, jackets.

How has your approach to disaster prep changed over the past 10 years w/ understanding that rate of disasters has increased?


  • How hasn’t it changed!? No seriously, there have been a lot of changes. 10 years ago we were still focused on earthquakes – and we still are working hard on that, but the fires shifted us significantly. We have built out all our response modes: FLA, a statewide hotline, remote clinics, in person clinics, DRC staffing, etc. We’ve also started a Racial Justice/Title Clearing project – this project helps folks whose title is confused to clear it up. (An example is when Grandma has been living in the home she owns with Grandson. She dies, there’s no will and no probate – life just goes on. But then the house is burned in a fire, Grandson applies for FEMA and/or insurance benefits, and is denied because he is not on the title of the house. This situation is particularly common in rural areas, and with communities of color who understandably mistrust governmental agencies.)

What are lessons you’ve learned over time that impact how legal service organizations, law firms and corporate legal departments conduct pro bono work related to natural disasters? What about the work still surprises you today?


  • I think I’ve addressed the lessons learned. What surprises me? Well, I am always surprised by how willing people are to step up. I love that, and it still surprises me each time. I’m always also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) about how it’s different every time. FEMA declarations used to be one fire, one declaration. We plan for that, and then we get one declaration for multiple fires (sometimes geographically disparate). We adjust to that and then we get the PSPS situation, not covered by FEMA. We develop a plan and then we get rain which has different rules, different legal issues, different insurance issues, etc. It can lead to whiplash – but it does keep it interesting!

Don't Miss: PBI 2023 Annual Conference Sessions On Demand Until October 31

On-demand sessions recorded at the PBI 2023 Annual Conference are now available online via West LegalEdcenter (WLEC). You must have or create a free WLEC profile to access this on-demand content.

Thirteen of the 15 programs offer CLE credit in many jurisdictions. Paid registrants of the 2023 Annual Conference may access these recordings at no cost through October 31, 2023, using a promotion code previously emailed to them. Others may access the programs for a fee.

The 15 recordings available are:

  • A Blueprint for Addressing Legal Deserts
  • Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Deepening the Impact of In-House Pro Bono Programs
  • Excessive Sentencing in the Deep South: How Pro Bono Attorneys Can Make a Difference
  • Executive Presence: What Matters & What Gets in the Way [not available for CLE credit]
  • Increasing Access to Justice Through Regulatory Reform
  • Innovations in Access to Justice
  • Innovative Ways to Support the Justice-Involved Community
  • Opportunities in Pro Bono – Eviction Record Sealing
  • Post-Roe: Reproductive Rights & Pro Bono
  • Pro Bono Ethics – Aesop’s Fables Edition
  • Remote and Bite-Size Immigration Pro Bono
  • Supreme Court – Reflections on the Current Term
  • Those Were the Best Days of My Summer – Ramping Up for Summer Pro Bono Programs: Time for a Refresh [not available for CLE credit]
  • Transactional Pro Bono

You may access additional on-demand programs from PBI via WLEC. For more information, contact PBI at

Artists' Brush with the Law

An icon of the pop art movement, there is no doubt that Andy Warhol has become a common household name. However, what may be less known in households is the recent Supreme Court case of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts v. Goldsmith, involving a claim by professional photographer Lynn Goldsmith, that Warhol’s silkscreen images based on her photograph of the musician Prince infringed her copyright. The case made it to the Supreme Court and, in a seven to two decision, the Court ruled against the Warhol Foundation.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the Court’s opinion, stating that “Goldsmith’s original works, like those of other photographers, are entitled to copyright protection, even against famous artists.” The majority opinion goes on to say that because both Goldsmith’s original photograph and the Foundation’s use of the art were of a commercial nature, a fair use defense did not apply. With this ruling also comes the potential for more copyright infringement cases to arise alongside a requirement to analyze the purpose of an artwork. In her dissent, Justice Kagan writes that the Court’s decision has “troubling” consequences “for other artists” and “will stifle creativity of every sort” by inhibiting transformative uses of prior works. This case reminds us that although art and law may seem like completely disparate fields, they are intertwined.

The Supreme Court’s ruling presents a great opportunity to delve deeper into the relationship between art and law, and explore the important role that the law has on artists and their art. Though some artists may wish to create art and express themselves without any concerns for society’s laws, in reality, legal issues can stand in their way. For example, the case of Rogers v. Koons further illustrates that artists can find themselves  on the wrong side of a copyright infringement claim if they fail to recognize the limits on their ability to use prior works as inspiration. In the case of photographer Art Rogers, his photo depicting a couple holding a line of puppies in a row influenced artist Jeff Koons’s exhibit on the banality of everyday items, including statues based on the image. After Koons made a significant profit, Rogers sued Koons for copyright infringement. In that case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided the case in favor of the photographer, and Rogers ultimately reached a settlement with Koons.

FIND OUT some examples of how law firms and corporations have provided artists and artistic institutions with the pro bono legal counsel they need in our recent blog.

Law Firm Membership Sale Extended to September 14th

Did you know? Membership in the Law Firm Pro Bono Project® initiative comes with a wealth of benefits, including at least 15 hours of free consulting services that can assist you with pro bono policy reviews, program benchmarking, pro bono retreat design and implementation, and more! Firm level memberships are available for around 25¢/month/attorney. 

The deadline to enroll has been extended to September 14, 2023, for membership through 2024 or 2025, and you’ll receive a 10% discount for a one-year membership or a 20% discount for a two-year membership. Join today!

Showcasing Challenge Signatories: Zurich North America's Afghan Refugee Initiative

Each year, the signatories to the PBI Law Firm Pro Bono Project Challenge® and Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® initiatives provide important pro bono services to underserved, disadvantaged, and other individuals or groups unable to secure the legal assistance needed to address critical problems. The PBI Signatory Showcase spotlights some of the exceptional work signatories have done to serve those in need.

The Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) project is highlighting the legal department of Zurich North America** for this month’s Signatory Showcase. In 2022 Zurich partnered with the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) to co-host an Afghan Asylum Clinic with the Women’s Muslim Resource Center.
Zurich North America’s Legal Services Department focuses on supporting its businesses by providing representation and legal services for the company, but each year more than 50 percent of the company’s in-house lawyers also help those less fortunate through volunteering their time and expertise to provide pro bono advice on immigration, estate planning, criminal records relief, and other legal issues. Kathy Malamis, Division Counsel and Chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Zurich North America, shared a recent experience co-hosting an asylum clinic for Afghan refugees.


Join PBI for a Celebration of Pro Bono Achievements at the PBI 2023 Annual Dinner


Monday, October 16, 2023
6:00 p.m. | Reception
7:00 p.m. | Dinner and Awards Presentation

Gotham Hall
1356 Broadway (at 36th Street) | New York

2023 John H. Pickering Award
honoring a law firm for its outstanding commitment to pro bono legal services

Hogan Lovells*


2023 CPBO Pro Bono Partner Award
honoring innovative pro bono collaborations of in-house legal departments with law firms and public interest organizations


in partnership with



Welcome Legal Alliance


Justice in Action

in partnership with

Baker McKenzie


For more information or to inquire about sponsorship opportunities, please contact:
Danny Reed, Director of Development | 202.729.6691

Spotlight on CPBO Pro Bono Partner Honorees

Accenture** in partnership with Welcome.US and Welcome Legal Alliance

Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Accenture has partnered with Welcome.US and the Welcome Legal Alliance (WLA) to serve Afghan refugees who relocated to the U.S. Accenture’s legal department has applied its expertise, energy, and enthusiasm to the work of Welcome.US and has pioneered new models to scale pro bono representation for Afghan refugees.

Since the beginning of Accenture’s partnership with the Welcome Legal Alliance, more than 240 Accenture pro bono volunteers — including nearly 100 attorneys and an additional 66 legal professionals — have contributed over 1,100 pro bono hours in service of more than 660 Welcome Legal Alliance clients.

Following the withdrawal, over 80,000 Afghan refugees relocated to the U.S., with 90 percent of this population entering the U.S. under humanitarian parole, a two-year temporary status. After arriving in the U.S., the Afghan refugees needed to apply for affirmative asylum to remain in the country. This led to a massive influx of asylum applications entering the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) department. 

The need to quickly assist so many Afghan refugees with asylum presented an opportunity to reimagine the legal support framework and make pro bono opportunities more accessible to in-house legal teams at a time when demand outstripped pro bono capacity at major law firms. 

In response, the Welcome.US coalition to support newcomers seeking refuge was formed, including the creation of the CEO Council, co-led by Julie Sweet, Chair and CEO of Accenture and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google. The Council works to galvanize the private sector and its employees to help newcomers resettle in the U.S.

Accenture’s partnership with Welcome.US has supported several new models to scale pro bono legal aid for Afghan refugees. WLA and the Accenture team helped over 600 Afghan applicants through the asylum process.



Justice in Action

The Justice in Action project, a collaboration of more than 60 legal departments and Baker McKenzie* , builds community across industries, geographies, and cultures through pro bono.  Justice in Action addresses compelling social justice challenges around the globe through impactful research projects on behalf of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that serve vulnerable populations.  The program has revolutionized how pro bono is executed through an original, collaborative virtual “sprint” format, that allows teams of volunteers from Baker McKenzie and legal departments to effectively conduct the legal research and analysis needed to create a number of capacity-building tools that have assisted vulnerable populations and others who need to understand the law.

Since May 2021, 3,391 participants have joined this initiative. Around 90 percent of participants are lawyers, 10 percent are legal staff, 2,430 are from in-house legal departments, and 961 are Baker McKenzie employees.

This partnership has engaged teams of problem-solvers on some of the world’s most compelling social justice challenges relating to racism, mental health, justice crossing borders, and child welfare. 


Save The Date

March 6 – 8, 2024 | Renaissance Downtown Hotel | Washington, D.C.

EmPOWERing Pro Bono

PBI and its CPBO project, in partnership with the legal department of Entergy Corporation** and the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), are hosting the second annual EmPOWERing Pro Bono Day on Thursday, November 16, 2023.  This event brings together volunteer attorneys and legal staff from electric and gas companies to provide pro bono legal assistance to address critical legal needs of underserved communities. At the 2022 EmPOWERing Pro Bono Day, more than 150 in-house volunteers from eight legal departments participated in pro bono service projects. Many legal services organizations and law firms partnered with the in-house attorneys and staff to address critical needs through pro bono legal services.  If you are interested in participating in EmPOWERing Pro Bono Day, please contact the CPBO project at

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member