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Lawyers serving the public good.

Regional call regarding Hurricane Katrina legal efforts

September 7, 2005

 

Mark O’Brien from Pro Bono Net started the call by introducing the goal: to allow affected gulf state legal aid organizations to talk with New York organizations that had particular experience with 9/11 legal relief efforts.  The following speakers gave a short overview of their organizations’ 9/11 activities, with a focus on first steps:

 

Maria Imperial and Carol Bockner enumerated the primary initiatives of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (ABCNY):

  1. First contact for involvement came through Safe Horizon’s (the city’s largest victim services agency) request for notaries.  Then a need to for volunteers to help process death certificates and send volunteers to the Armory, and later to the Pier, to work with victims in seek of legal.  There, the ABCNY was able to see first-hand what sort of needs were paramount.
  2. The ABCNY called a meeting together the week after 9/11 with legal services groups to coordinate efforts to address victims' needs. 
  3. Developed the “facilitator model": have someone issue-spot, then assign one legal service contact for that person.  This required many volunteers from both private sector and legal services. 
  4. Following week: meeting with 100+ law firms to ask for resources to support the effort.  Key requests to firms: supplies, furniture, and staff.  Legal services organizations were stretched to the max, and contributions from law firms were key. ABCNY President asked law firms directly to donate dedicated staff to the effort.  Law firms donated total of 4-5 full-time staff who were seconded to the City Bar.  Important role of Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) to refer matters such as T&E, insurance, etc. to private bar.
  5. Attorneys volunteered in droves.  ABCNY organized trainings on issue-spotting, developed detailed questionnaire to use with clients.
  6. Developed similar training model for small business representation as well.
  7. Used existing ABCNY LRS hotline to field requests for help, and iLawyer software to match clients with facilitators where brief advice could not resolve questions.  Worked closely with Trial Lawyers Care to refer liability cases, and eventually to refer other cases as well. 

 

A written description of the Facilitator Model, including lessons learned, is in the Public Service in a Time of Crisis report.  This was a report by the NALP Foundation/City Bar Fund on 9/11 legal relief efforts, and was structured to serve as a guide to the planning/implementation strategies followed in NYC.  You can download the report (75 pages) at:

http://www.abcny.org/CityBarFund/pdf/publicservice911.pdf 

 

Carol reported that the ABCNY still had 900 open cases four years later. 

 

Question:  What was the role of the Young Lawyers Division FEMA project?  Maria reported that the Young Lawyers' Committee/FEMA was not very involved in the NY 9/11 process.  Also, larger national organizations were less helpful than local ones who knew the lay of the land better.

 

Peggy Earisman addressed the issue of an office that was directly affected and incapacitated, e.g. in the disaster area.  MFY Legal Services was just a few blocks away from the World Trace center site and the staff had to flee that morning.  They ran the office after without telephone, internet, etc.  Some concrete steps they took to recover and move forward included:

  1. providing cell phones to all office staff to improve communication;
  2. helping staff cope with their own trauma, including taking advantage of available pro bono psychological counseling;
  3. organizing a citywide conference in December to spotlight the socio-economic demographic scope of the tragedy, which served the dual purpose of positively energizing staff and creating awareness within the city of poverty law issues;
  4. addressing the environmental issues within the reopened office through multiple testing until the staff felt comfortable physically working in the office again; and
  5. with the ABCNY, providing services to people citywide through a hotline, which turned out to be a 3-year endeavor.

 

Peggy noted that MFY had to “help ourselves while we helped clients.”

 

Question: What happens if a legal services program does not have access to its client files for four to six months?  Peggy said they were out of their office for one week.  Mark O’Brien noted that Legal Aid Society in New York, on the other hand, was never able to return to its downtown office and offered to put the New Orleans program in direct touch with the Legal Aid Society staff who could not make this call. 

 

Marnie Berk then spoke about the pro bono project that the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) coordinated.  Their project was discrete and is still ongoing.  With ABCNY, NYLPI worked to identify early on unmet needs and how best to meet them.  Two of the largest unions in the city indicated that hotel, restaurant, maintenance, and other service workers, many of whom were undocumented, would need assistance.  NYLPI developed a consortium of nine law firms, most of whom already had a relationship with NYLPI, to meet weekly, stay in daily contact through emails, etc. to operate as a mini law firm.  Marnie stated that the law firms “never said no.”  The bulk of their work was in filing claims with the Victims Compensation Fund, as well as advocacy and policy work.  The group also took on family, workers' comp, housing, and other issues. 

 

There was then a brief questions and answers/open discussion period:

 

·        Martha Bergmark asked if any of the NY groups had any advice or experience on how to best to organize the outpouring of people from all around the country who want to volunteer.  Maria replied that if they are attorneys and want to do legal work, there is a problem if they are not admitted and should work on getting a waiver of practice.  Someone on the call reported that in fact Texas has waived state bar admissions for displaced attorneys, and that other affected states are looking into similar waivers. 

 

·        [There was a brief exchange between two people on the call who were connecting for the first time since the hurricane, which was very moving for everyone on the call.]

 

·        Monte Mollere from the Louisiana State Bar Association then reported that the Texas State Bar Association had sent five staff members to help the LA bar re-establish its offices and operations in Lafayette, LA. 

 

·        Tony Barash from the ABA reported that so far approximately 800 attorneys had volunteered through the ABA’s web site, and they had organized the list down to states where each volunteer is licensed and their practice area.  They are working with local groups to put these lists of volunteers in their hands.  The ABA has also received a number of requests for assistance from those in need, as well, including military legal requests. 

 

·        Peggy Earsiman mentioned that their staff spent a lot of time providing mentoring to pro bono attorneys who volunteered through the Facilitator Model in New York after 9/11.

 

Jill Siegel from Legal Services of New York – Bronx then reported on their experiences after 9/11.  Their first step was to get “organized amongst ourselves.”  She stated that collaboration with other organizations is key, including working with social services organizations to provide training in substantive legal issues.  She then stressed that legal information for the public is key and encouraged all of the organizations to keep posting content on their websites. 

 

LSNY-Bronx also conducted local outreach within their own neighborhoods, so clients realized that they could obtain the same services locally instead of having to travel to the disaster area for services. 

 

Jill also highly recommended working with state congressional delegations to get high-up FEMA reps appointed to the organization as regular contacts.

 

Question: What sort of legislative opportunities should be pursued now, given that others might be now on hold?  Any experience in what to try to push through still?  Peggy mentioned that after 9/11, eligibility requirements for the Community Development Block Grant Program (CBGB) were expanded; this resulted in fund traditionally earmarked for low income communities not being used in those communities.  It’s important to keep an eye on all legislation proposed and passed to make sure that it does not hurt legal services clients.

 

Jill responded that disaster-related Medicaid and unemployment programs can be changed to help enroll people not normally eligible due to lack of documentation.  For example, after 9/11, the Medicaid application was temporarily streamlined to three pages.  

 

Question: How can we deal with document replacement?  ABCNY had to notarize forms.  This is difficult, especially in anti-immigrant atmosphere.  Larry in Alabama said that all three affected gulf states have already adopted policy to allow self-declaration for Medicaid, so this hurdle appears clear for purposes of eligibility for immediate relief.  It’s less clear how this will play out in the longer term. 

 

Richard Zorza suggested that since there are hundreds of these policies, a national advocacy effort, perhaps by an expert in the field, could focus government attention on this obstacle.  Could be a way for a law firm to help. 

 

Laren Spirer then spoke about how New York legal community created a practice area on probono.net/ny website to support the pro bono legal efforts described earlier.  She mentioned that the technology allowed organizations to collaborate together in one shared space.  In addition to being a repository for important resources, it was a critical communication tool with email used to engage volunteers and blast out new information re: benefits, funds, etc.  She also stressed the need to have someone actively involved in maintaining and using the site to make it a helpful resource. 

 

After a brief discussion, there was consensus that Pro Bono Net should work with interested folks in developing a similar model for these disaster efforts. 

 

Question: How hard was it in New York to work with clients from different states?  Carol mentioned that they had clients throughout tri-state area as well as 32 countries and other areas in the US, especially the West Coast.  The NJ, CT, and PA bars were all in close contact with ABCNY.

 

Question: To what extent did New York providers follow income guidelines?  Carol said that the ABCNY didn't follow any income guidelines.  Peggy said that legal services programs used their normal  income guidelines but were looser on the assets limit.  The distinction was noted that in New York after 9/11, victims lost their jobs but not, usually, their homes.

 

Andrew Strong from Texas noted some of the developments there: The State Bar of Texas organized a Hurricane Katrina task force to organize and disseminate information, and to collect information about interested volunteer attorneys who can help either on-site or by phone.  In addition, the task force has published a 90-page report on the differences between TX and LA laws and it is now posted on the State Bar of Texas web site.  He cited estimates that approximately 230K people who left LA are now in Texas, many of whom say they will start new lives there and need help leasing apartments, getting kids in school, etc., as they do not have their most critical legal documents.  The State Bar of Texas also just trained 200+ attorneys this week to visit shelters, work a phone bank, etc.  As FEMA's 800 numbers are in high demand and often busy, the State Bar of Texas has set-up a hotline and coordinating with local bar associations and programs such as the Houston Volunteer Lawyers' Program to staff the hotline.  Andrew also reported that many TX attorneys are already members of the LA bar and so they can handle calls from displaced LA residents.  Finally, they are also working on details of shelter arrangements, such as doing background checks on donor/done, specifying the rights of the home-lender, etc. 

 

There was then another brief questions and answers/open discussion period:

 

·        Karen Lash from Equal Justice Works who is volunteering with the Mississippi Center for Justice now asked if anyone with answers to the following questions would email her directly after the call: how to set-up an online fundraising button, and any creative ideas about how to use law schools in this effort? 

 

·        Miriam Buhl of Weil Gotshal & Manges offered some office space in the firms’ Houston office if any of the affected legal services programs needed space. 

 

·        There was agreement on the need for technology to support the emerging legal efforts in the affected states.  Kent Spuhler reported that the ABA, NLADA and LSC were working on a project to create a national disaster relief resource area.  Mark O’Brien reported that Pro Bono Net was part of those discussions and it looked like the area would be built on the probono.net site.  Richard Zorza mentioned that the key will be how to build centrally while still supporting the programs locally. 

 

·        Mark O’Brien mentioned that Pfizer has offered laptops to programs dealing with displaced residents; NPower was suggested as a resource to assist with tech needs.  Someone mentioned that NPower NY had been helpful in rewiring some New York legal aid offices after 9/11. 

 

·        Texas Legal Services Center offered some office space in their Austin office to any program needing it.

 

·        There was a request for Pro Bono Net to create a listserv for the folks on the call to continue to talk.

 

·        In thinking about needed state legislation, suggestions included expediting death certificates and waiving statue of limitations for some cases.

 

·        Laura Tuggle in Louisiana asked if the TX folks at the Astrodome would add to their intake screening whether LA residents are currently legal aid clients or have attorneys.  The Louisiana programs are beginning to work to track down clients and that type of coordination would be very helpful. 

 

It was recommended that a follow-up call be scheduled in 2 weeks. 

 

Attendees:

 

Mississippi:

Martha Bergmark, Mississippi Center for Justice

Karen Lash, Equal Justice Works/ MCJ

Ruby White, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services

 

Louisiana:

Mark Moreau, New Orleans Legal Assistance office of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services

Rowena Jones, New Orleans Legal Assistance office of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services

Laura Tuggle, New Orleans Legal Assistance office of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services

Monte Mollere, Louisiana State Bar Association

Laura Tansey, State Bar of Texas (in Lafayette, Louisiana)

 

Alabama:

Jimmy Fry, Legal Services Alabama (Statewide Disaster Coordinator)

Carl Salle, Legal Services Alabama

Janice Franks, Legal Services Alabama

Larry Gardella, Legal Services Alabama

 

Texas:

Neish Carroll, Texas Legal Services Center

Susan Schoppa, Texas Lawyers Care, State Bar of Texas

Randy Chapman, Texas Legal Services Center

Andrew Strong, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and State Bar of Texas

 

Florida:

Kent Spuhler, Florida Legal Services

 

New York/Other:

Maria Imperial, City Bar Justice Center

Carol Bockner, City Bar Justice Center

Peggy Earsiman, Legal Services for New York – Manhattan

Marnie Berk, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest

Jill Siegel, Legal Services for New York – Bronx

Laren Spirer, Debevoise & Plimpton

 

Chris Tahbaz, Debevoise & Plimpton

Anthony Barash, ABA Center for Pro Bono

Cheryl Zalenski, ABA Center for Pro Bono

Richard Zorza, Self-Represented Litigants Network

Miriam Buhl, Weil Gotshal & Manges

 

Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net

Matthew Burnett, Pro Bono Net

Allison McDermott, Pro Bono Net

Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net

 

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