The Legal Community's Response to September 11, 2001

Friday, July 09, 2004

  • William Dean
  • Volunteers of Legal Service

This article appeared in the "Pro Bono Digest" column of the New York Law Journal on Friday, July 2, 2004.

By William J. Dean
The Legal Community's Response to September 11, 2001

Last month, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund completed its work. The September 11 Commission will issue its final report later this month. Also relating to September 11, and of special interest to the New York City legal community, is the issuance of Public Service in a Time of Crisis: A Report and Retrospective on the Legal Community's Response to the Events of September 11, 2001, a publication of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Fund, Inc. (the City Bar Fund); The NALP Foundation for Lawyer Career Research and Education; and the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics, Fordham University School of Law. Matthew L. Moore, a lawyer at Davis, Polk & Wardwell, served both as project manager for the report and principal author. The report documents the extraordinary response of the legal community to 9/11. More than 4,000 individuals and families affected by the disaster were served on a pro bono basis by volunteer lawyers, and 1,310 small businesses received pro bono legal assistance. About 3,000 lawyers received training through the City Bar and through in-house law firm programs, and more than 2,800 lawyers registered on the 9/11 website to gain information and resources to serve their pro bono clients. For Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, this immense effort represented "the Bar at its finest, its shining hour; thousands of lawyers, paralegals, and staff members, hundreds of thousands of hours enthusiastically volunteered for the public good."

Survey results of lawyers and law firms relating to their 9/11 form an important part of the report. Why did lawyers volunteer? These were some of the responses:
• "I wanted to help."
• "I felt it was the right thing to do."
• "I felt it was the best way I could help victims."
• "Like many people, I just felt the need to help in any way possible. The pro bono experience helped me personally cope with the effects of 9/11."
• "In the days right after the tragedy, I would have traded in my law degree for experience in rescue operations in a heartbeat. When the opportunity came to help the families of the victims, and to help them in a legal role, I jumped at it."
• "We're not doctors, and we're not construction workers, but there are things that lawyers can do in this awful time."

Based on the surveys, the report's compilers found:
• People who were new to pro bono work volunteered in large numbers. Of the respondents, 30% had spent between 1 and 25 hours in the past on pro bono matters, and 22% had spent no time at all.
• The volunteers spanned all levels of experience, with 57% of respondents having at least four years of experience.
• While lawyers from private law firms represented the largest group of respondents (74%), sole practitioners and lawyers from corporations, legal services organizations, bar associations and government all participated in the relief efforts.
• Lawyers with many specialty areas participated, with an almost equal number of lawyers identifying themselves as litigators or corporate lawyers, followed in smaller numbers by lawyers who identified themselves as specializing in trusts and estates, real estate, pro bono, domestic relations/family law, criminal law, landlord/tenant law, tax, bankruptcy, and mass tort.

Lawyers provided (1) pro bono legal representation to clients; (2) legal advice or counsel only - for instance, at walk-in centers or on telephone hotlines, with no ongoing representation; and (3) general advocacy - examples being mentoring, preparing training materials, death certificate assistance and notary services. Issues handled by lawyers for clients of the City Bar Fund's September 11 legal projects included landlord/tenant (28%); wills and estates (17%); insurance (9%); consumer finance related (9%); employment related (9%); income maintenance, including bankruptcy and debt relief (6%); home ownership/real property (3%);death certificates (2%); and immigration (1%).

Among the law firms responding to the survey, the level of lawyer participation varied. At most of these firms, between 5% and 20% of lawyers participated. At six firms, the participation rate exceeded 20% and at one firm of about 80 lawyers, participation exceeded 35%. Eighty-one percent of the participants at the responding firms were associates, 16% partners and 3% other attorneys. Paralegals and other staff members also contributed to the effort.

The volunteer lawyers worked under stressful conditions with clients who had suffered terrible personal losses and crippling financial losses. At the same time, according to the report, the lawyers "found their own lives enriched both by their new relationships with their 9/11 clients and by their satisfaction in having been able to help people in need." (Indeed, 85% of all respondents expect to perform non-9/11 related pro bono work in the future.) As Judge Kaye notes in her foreword to the report, "I am grateful for the a perpetual reminder of the value, the importance, the personal satisfaction that comes from pro bono work."

Critical to the success of the 9/11 efforts was the collaboration among institutions of the legal profession where central coordination by the City Bar Fund, coupled with wide collaboration and participation, secured an immediate and effective response by the legal community. According to the report, "The preexisting collaboration in New York City among legal services groups, law firms, and the City Bar helped lay the foundation for the cooperation and collaboration upon which the 9/11 legal services initiative was built."

Training also was critical to prepare lawyers to represent clients in what for many were unfamiliar legal areas. "One myth shattered by the 9/11 response," according to the report, " 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." Pursuant to the facilitator model, each attorney who volunteered was trained to address a client's full spectrum of legal and administrative needs, relieving clients of the burden of repeating their stories over and over again to many attorneys specializing in different areas of the law. The use of mentors and other experts provided critical support to the volunteer lawyers serving as facilitators in their representation of clients affected by the 9/11 tragedy.

The use of technology and web-based resources improved the 9/11 response effort. and iLawyer were indispensable resources that allowed the 9/11 legal relief effort to be organized quickly and efficiently. Among other features, provided a comprehensive library of 9/11-related materials that could be readily accessed over the Internet, allowing for streamlined communications with thousands of volunteers, and enabling volunteer lawyers to request and exchange information about difficulties in providing 9/11 services. iLawyer enabled the central coordinators of the legal relief effort to match lawyers with clients swiftly and with a minimum of effort, thereby allowing them to coordinate the assignment process without overtaxing their limited staff resources. "E-mail, Internet-based resources, and interconnected pro bono communities have the power to advertise opportunities widely and to simplify the act of volunteering," states the report.

The public interest legal services community was a vital contributor to the 9/11 legal relief effort. As the report states, "These groups have unparalleled experience ministering to the needs of the poor and working with those in distress, and after 9/11, they contributed to the relief effort in critical ways, including providing legal expertise not widely available in the private bar." Reflecting on the 9/11 work undertaken by lawyers, Mr. Moore says: "I have been continually struck not only by the generosity and commitment of the lawyers who helped those affected by 9/11, but also by their creativity which came to the fore as project after project developed and obstacle after obstacle was overcome. In many instances, the relief efforts were successful because lawyers found solutions through ingenuity and dedication, rather than sheer manpower. Creativity, generosity and dedication are powerful forces for healing and recovery during times of crisis." ______________________________________________________
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.