As this issue’s cover story illustrates, the need for pro bono legal assistance is widespread, varied and urgent. A deployed soldier who cannot find her son, an African student facing deportation and persecution, or a family facing the loss of their home – these are crises by any measure for those who face them.
But occasionally, a disaster occurs that plunges entire cities, regions or nations into crisis. Such cataclysmic events arouse in each of us a desire to do something. At times like that, many of us ask ourselves, of what use is a J.D.? When people are struggling to regain the bare necessities for survival, can a lawyer be of any real help?
The short answer is "Yes." In times of disaster, we need lawyers from all practice areas and with all levels of experience. Lawyers are trained to listen, to assimilate information quickly, and to communicate clearly. We are accustomed to solving problems under time pressure, in rapidly changing circumstances, and amidst high emotions. All of those skills are necessary to respond effectively to a disaster.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, created a sudden need for immediate legal services for thousands of people. Between 3,000 and 6,000 individuals and families were displaced from their homes, hundreds of businesses were destroyed and more than 100,000 people lost their jobs.
The legal community responded. More than 4,000 lawyers from all practice areas volunteered to provide counseling and legal advice. They helped people obtain insurance and retirement plan benefits, as well as Social Security, unemployment, workers’ compensation and federal Victim Compensation Fund benefits. They advised people on family law, personal finance, tax, immigration and landlord/tenant law. They assisted with the probate of wills and with intestacy, and they mediated commercial lease disputes.
Volunteer lawyers found innovative ways of serving clients. Seeing victims faced with legal needs in multiple areas and a confusing matrix of benefits, lawyers developed the "facilitator" model for delivering legal services. Instead of requiring those affected by the disaster to find, and work with, many lawyers providing various legal services, the client was matched with a single lawyer who served as his or her "facilitator." The facilitator was responsible for addressing the full spectrum of the client’s legal and administrative needs, either alone or with the assistance of other lawyers more expert in dealing with the client’s particular needs. More than 1,000 lawyers were trained as facilitators. Others filled more traditional roles, giving advice in specific subject areas.
Training was a key feature. Organizers ascertained the subject areas most likely to arise. For each area, they assigned a lawyer to create an outline of the most relevant issues and identify the key information needed in order to assess the client’s needs. The goal was not to train lawyers to handle all of the client’s legal problems, but to identify and evaluate them and then to reach out for help from the broader legal community.
Using e-mail, websites and electronic databases, they disseminated information to volunteer lawyers, posted training materials and client questionnaires, and matched lawyers with clients. Lawyers from all practice areas and experience levels organized training sessions, compiled guidebooks to legal resources and drafted proposed legislation.
The legal community’s response to 9/11 was chronicled in an excellent report entitled "Public Service in a Time of Crisis," copyright 2004 by the Association of the bar of the City of New York Fund, Inc., the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Fordham University School of Law. The report can be found online at http://www.abcny.org/ pdf/PSTC1.pdf/. The report identified 18 lessons learned about practical aspects of responding to a disaster, community aspects of the response and things that could have been done better. Its authors concluded:
One myth shattered by the 9/11 response was the common belief that only lawyers with particular skills are able to provide free legal services. Not only were litigators able to participate, but every specialty joined in, often providing services in relatively unfamiliar legal areas. Lawyers and organizers accomplished this unusual feat thanks to the facilitator model and the institutional structures it put in place, namely, expanded training, regular case monitoring, use of experienced specialists to advise and assist where necessary, and implementation of special communication plans to keep volunteers up to date on relevant developments. * * * Lawyers who believe they cannot find volunteer opportunities because of their practice specialty should reconsider their views in light of 9/11.
Each disaster poses different challenges. Hurricane Katrina, for example, devastated such an enormous area that systems remain overwhelmed even now, months after the event. If the dreaded influenza pandemic occurs, we will face additional obstacles posed by quarantine and fear. As lawyers, we may not be able to rescue people from collapsed buildings, restore electricity, or administer emergency medical care. But each one of us can help mend the torn fabric of our society.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Marmaduke is a lawyer in the Portland office of Harrang Long Gary Rudnick. Her practice focuses on business litigation and appeals. She just recently returned from Mississippi, where she spent 10 days working as a volunteer lawyer in the Disaster Recovery Centers in Waveland, Long Beach, Gulfport and Moss Point. Photographs she took while there can be seen at http://www.harrang.com/attorney_bios/ atty_pages/information_links/katrina.htm.
© 2005 Susan Marmaduke