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Legal Community Reflects on Sandy Response and Prepares for Future Disasters

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

  • By: Jon Weinberg
  • Organization: Pro Bono Net

Over 80 legal services and pro bono attorneys, law students, and other legal community members attended the Disaster Lawyering: Delivering Legal Aid Post Sandy conference on October 17. The conference, held at the New York City Bar Association, was co-sponsored by Pro Bono Net, the City Bar Justice Center and The Legal Aid Society. The organizers sought to bring the legal community together to reflect on its response to Sandy and help establish best practices and lessons for the future, particularly in the face of the gross inequalities in New York Sandy exposed.

Renowned public interest lawyer and law professor Bill Quigley delivered the conference’s keynote address on Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina for Social Justice Lawyers. Professor Quigley, Law Professor and Director of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice and the Gills Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, highlighted ten key lessons for attendees. These lessons included: disasters do not affect all populations equally, social change comes when communities exercise collective power, and anyone involved in community recovery must be accountable to the community’s residents. His powerful message of solidarity, hope, and love in community-led disaster recovery was well-received by attendees and relatable to their Sandy experiences.

The three panels at the conference were framed around different themes related to the delivery of legal aid after Sandy. The first panel focused on Lessons Learned from Sandy. Panelists discussed how the disparate legal needs of victims were uniquely tied to their physical needs and different circumstances. They expanded on how legal services providers had to adapt to new programs and novel issues and will have to be flexible in the face of any disaster. Others pointed out that the response was overly general and failed to reflect the different needs of each community and range of victims’ expectations. The panelists agreed that city, state, and federal governments need to coordinate a more sophisticated preparedness and response plan for the next disaster.

The second panel specifically considered the pro bono response to Sandy. While panelists applauded the speed with which pro bono attorneys volunteered their services after the storm, they stressed the need to better identify the ways in which the volunteers can meaningfully contribute to immediate and long-term recovery. The panelists identified several factors that limited how pro bono attorneys can assist after a disaster, including the strict income requirements for pro bono representation and conflicts in insurance matters. Among steps identified by the panelists to improve the use of pro bono resources were better screening of victims and the allocation of more back-end research and writing work that avoids conflicts. And continuing a theme from the first panel, there was agreement that determining how to best use law students is also important.

After a break for networking, members of the third panel discussed continuing needs and fair rebuilding. Echoing Professor Quigley, the panelists expressed concern about inequalities in the storm’s impact and in recovery. They identified a need for more community-based advocacy to complement individual assistance, and how community-based efforts can still be successful despite attorney-client privilege. For the future, panelists agreed on a need for better accountability to communities and a commitment on the part of the next Mayor to the construction of more sustainable affordable housing and more funding for small business recovery. Finally, there was a consensus on the need for more action on behalf of renters and undocumented immigrants.

As part of the conference’s final session, Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien expressed hope that technological solutions can leverage the new community collaborations developed since Sandy, building upon lessons learned and needs identified by legal services providers, pro bono attorneys, and others. Going forward, conference participants expressed a commitment to use technology in pro bono and work together to determine how resources can be allocated to communities after a disaster. Should another disaster strike New York, the different groups represented at the conference will surely be better prepared to deliver the legal aid necessary for recovery.

* Jon Weinberg is an Americorps VISTA volunteer based at Pro Bono Net. His projects involve capacity-building and innovation to improve disaster legal aid resources. For more information, contact him at jweinberg@probono.net.

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