By Teresa Schiller
Hurricane Harvey made landfall after days of weather reports and news updates in August 2017. Some of the preparation was last-minute as residents scrambled for safety. Other preparation had begun years earlier, based on lessons learned in responding to other disasters. When the rain subsided, we learned that families and businesses had sustained billions of dollars in damage.
The Texas legal community quickly stepped up to help Hurricane Harvey victims. A Texas lawyer now, I am reminded of my experience in New York helping families and business victims after 9/11. Many of us in the New York legal community—like people throughout the city and beyond—wanted to provide relief. Our experience yielded lessons in responding to disasters that are important for all lawyers and law firms.
SPEEDY INTERNAL ORGANIZATION
As my law firm in New York received requests for help, it seemed to me that an organized response was necessary. I asked the partner in charge of pro bono if he needed help coordinating our resources. He put me in charge and enlisted a junior lawyer and paralegal to help (the “coordination team”). We got to work.
Requests for volunteer assistance were extensive and varied. Lawyers and other legal personnel were needed to represent victims, staff tables, help complete applications for financial assistance and death certificates, notarize documents, and translate for non-native English speakers. The coordination team took several steps to organize the response.
Evaluate requests. We reviewed requests for assistance, evaluated them in terms of the firm’s capabilities, and communicated with firm leaders about policy. Given the firm’s expertise in business law, the coordination team focused on requests from small businesses.
Assess resources. The coordination team gathered information about and helped to assess the firm’s staffing resources, helping firm leaders to make decisions about volunteering while ensuring that ongoing client needs were met.
Set procedures. We worked with firm leaders to set and implement procedures—to help the volunteering go smoothly, to minimize questions from volunteers, to maximize the quality of volunteer assistance, and to comply with existing procedures. For example, we developed client intake guidelines for 9/11 pro bono matters, using the firm’s standard intake procedure as a model.
Communicate. For the coordination team, daily communication with stakeholders was essential. We communicated with firm leaders, lawyers and staff members, bar associations, charitable organizations, and other entities.
Train. The coordination team arranged for the firm’s volunteers to receive training and supervision. We provided in-house training, facilitated access to outside training, and arranged for senior lawyers to supervise more junior lawyers on pro bono matters.
Track. Finally, we tracked the firm’s volunteer response, setting up and maintaining a database to record individuals’ involvement. The coordination team solicited feedback from volunteers and apprised firm leaders and fellow volunteers about developments.
LEVERAGING COMMUNITY RESOURCES
Many 9/11 victims needed help with a variety of legal and administrative issues. Bar associations, charitable organizations, courts, and law firms developed educational resources for volunteers who wanted to help but who were not specialists in particular areas. Our coordination team gathered and distributed information about these resources to the firm’s volunteers.
Training sessions. Organizations designed and hosted training sessions on topics such as: (1) representing a 9/11 client—taking a legal inventory of the client’s needs, prioritizing the needs, acting as a problem solver, and finding other experts to assist when necessary; (2) handling landlord/tenant, family law, and other types of legal matters; (3) helping families obtain death certificates; and (4) helping small-business victims apply for financial benefits.
Manuals. Organizations also created written manuals about substantive legal issues, as well as the many public and private benefits available to 9/11 victims.
Websites. Certain organizations with online capabilities dedicated webpages to the 9/11 response, making educational resources and other information easily accessible to volunteers.
COLLABORATING WITH SPECIALISTS
While educational resources provided lawyers with basic information about certain areas of law, some pro bono clients had complex problems requiring more specialized legal assistance. Fortunately, many legal community members cooperated with each other in helping 9/11 victims. The coordination team helped identify specialists with whom the firm could collaborate.
Mentors and Co-Counsel. The firm collaborated with specialists in insurance law and personal injury law to assist two clients with complex problems. The insurance lawyer—an in-house counsel at an insurance company—mentored the firm’s lawyers on one matter. The personal injury lawyer—a solo practitioner—took the lead on a wrongful death case, and the firm provided extensive back-office support, including legal research, investigative, and document preparation services.
Consultants. An expert witness-consulting firm with which my firm had previously worked volunteered on one of our pro bono matters. It analyzed cultural and economic differences in a foreign country to assist the family of a person who had emigrated to the U.S. and died on 9/11. The family’s legal team included this analysis in an application for funding that was to be awarded based on factors such as the victim’s expected “lifetime earnings” and the extent to which the victim likely would have been a breadwinner for extended family members.
Affiliates. Lawyers in one of the firm’s international offices obtained a birth certificate and other official documents for the family of another person who had emigrated to the U.S. and died on 9/11. These documents were among those that the family needed to obtain a death certificate and apply for certain financial assistance.
Hopefully, these lessons learned in the wake of 9/11 are helpful for responding to disasters now and in the future. Although our society continually endeavors to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of such disasters, we also must continually endeavor to improve our responses to them.
Teresa Schiller is a business and employment lawyer in Waco at Beard Kultgen Brophy Bostwick & Dickson. While practicing law at another law firm in New York, she coordinated the firm’s volunteer response and represented victims in the wake of 9/11.