Lessons Learned in Providing Disaster Legal Services in Florida

I learned a lot of lessons from Chesterfield. The difference between a great lawyer and a good lawyer. The importance of being ‘for’ something. To be somebody. The difference between doing well and doing good.  —Martha Barnett (ABA President, 2000-01) about Chesterfield Smith (ABA President, 1973-74) at Smith’s memorial service on July 22, 2003.

On August 30, 2017, Linda Anderson of Bay Area Legal Services and I worked together to revise and update the Disaster Legal Services Plan of Action for Florida to submit to the ABA YLD Director of Disaster Legal Services, Andrew VanSingel, as part of the ABA’s agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to jointly deliver legal assistance in the event of a disaster. Luckily, Linda had experience responding to disasters, and we had a prior plan to work from that my colleague and friend Austin Thacker from our firm’s Orlando office had prepared when he served as the ABA YLD district representative for Florida. As we completed our plan, little did we know that Hurricane Irma would sweep across Florida less than two weeks later, creating an urgent, increased need for civil legal aid for many Floridians.

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Other than being born and raised in Florida and living through multiple hurricanes, nothing in my personal past or professional experience qualified me to be a leader in implementing disaster legal services. Several factors played to my advantage, however, and illustrate the importance of and benefits to lawyers volunteering to help those in need, especially after a disaster. As I learned through this experience, working to provide disaster legal services presents the perfect opportunity for a lawyer to develop personally and professionally, while giving back to the community.

FEMA and the ABA have coordinated the delivery of free legal aid in the wake of a disaster since 1978. The arrangement took a “significant step forward” in 2007, when a new agreement allowed participating attorneys to provide assistance with securing FEMA and other governmental benefits available to disaster survivors. The agreement increased the reach and array of legal services delivered in a two-year stretch in which volunteers responded to 19 designated disasters and fielded more than 75,000 calls. The expanded scope of the agreement also served as recognition of the significant role legal volunteers had played in aiding survivors of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Andrew, and Isabel, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the September 11th terrorist attacks.

In fact, in the agreement, FEMA and the ABA YLD define their missions as—respectively—(1) leading and supporting an emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation;  (2) enhancing the professional and personal development of lawyers through educational, leadership, networking, advocacy, and public service opportunities.

Many resilient Floridians recently learned that they were not alone as they struggled to piece back together the basic necessities that we all too often take for granted. Volunteer attorneys stood ready to respond to their calls. These attorneys helped survivors resolve their housing, employment, or family matters. The volunteers immersed themselves in ensuring that the laudable missions set forth in the agreement became more than words on a page. Attorneys carried them out in practice, improving the quality of lives of those helped—as well as those helping—and upholding the best traditions of our profession.

FEMA and the ABA agreed that the YLD will assist FEMA and “will provide Disaster Legal Services (DLS) to low-income disaster survivors in the aftermath of a presidentially declared ‘major disaster,’” as defined by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1974, as amended. The express purpose of the agreement is the parties’ joint recognition of the importance of developing and maintaining a coordinated legal services delivery system to ensure the availability of lawyers and legal support personnel from diverse practice settings with the expertise, skills and experience necessary to meet the different needs of low-income disaster survivors. DHS/FEMA and the ABA have reaffirmed their joint commitment multiple times since 1978, most recently in June 2017.

Once the president declares a “major disaster” and DHS/FEMA provides a written request to YLD’s Director of Disaster Legal Services, the YLD coordinates the mobilization of volunteer attorneys to provide free legal counseling and advice, referrals and representation to disaster survivors who lack sufficient resources to secure adequate legal services, regardless of whether the insufficiency existed before the disaster. Volunteer attorneys must be licensed and in good standing in the affected jurisdiction. After the YLD mobilizes a sufficient number of volunteers, the YLD then works to monitor and report to DHS/FEMA on the number and types of cases handled by volunteers, maintaining direct communication with DHS/FEMA at various levels, and exercising the sole and complete authority to manage the delivery of legal services to disaster survivors.

To fulfill these responsibilities, the YLD must formulate disaster-specific programs that outline planned services and the methodology for implementing these services in response to a catastrophe. The agreement also identifies the various actors involved in a successful response and directs the YLD to collaborate with individual attorneys, law firms, not-for-profit legal service providers, Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entities, state and local bar associations, and pro bono organizations to make lawyers available to meet the legal assistance needs of disaster survivors, including through the use of established state and local bar telephone numbers that can serve as a hotline number for disaster legal services.

Soon after the two-member ABA DLS Team for Florida—consisting of Linda and me—submitted our initial plan of action to the director for DLS, our team began to grow as we learned of many individuals ready, willing, and able to donate their time and talents to others in the event of a disaster. Although Hurricane Irma had yet to turn to Florida, we knew we had strong, experienced partners in The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar YLD not only to help solicit volunteer attorneys and spread the word about the hotline upon its activation, but to take the laboring oar on setting up the hotline, staffing it, and coordinating referrals to volunteer attorneys, as well as disseminating training materials for those taking on cases.

In the days leading up to the storm, the ABA DLS team began reaching out to other partner organizations to ensure that legal aid would be available as soon as possible after the storm and that the public would receive word that the legal community would be available to help those in need. We emailed the leadership of every local bar association affiliated with the ABA YLD and The Florida Bar YLD, ensuring that 19 local bar organizations throughout Florida received a copy of our DLS Plan of Action. We asked them to not only disseminate the plan to their membership to help spread word of the relief available to Floridians in need, but to ask their members to volunteer to provide legal assistance to those calling the hotline for help. We explained that volunteers would sometimes be called on for small commitments—such as the provision of basic legal information (much of which we detailed in the Plan of Action), advice or brief legal services—but we cautioned that attorneys should be prepared to either engage in additional forms of representation or coordinate with their local legal aid organization to ensure that legal needs do not go unmet. The local bar leaders immediately stepped up and demonstrated why their peers have entrusted them with leadership roles. While preparing their practices and families for the impending storm, they read and shared the plan of action and made personal pleas to their membership to fill out a volunteer intake form. For example, the Hillsborough County Bar Association emailed the plan of action to its members, and the presidents of the HCBA and its YLD made additional calls for members to assist the relief efforts in various widely attended meetings and membership events. The HCBA also posted the plan of action and a request for members to volunteer, along with additional information, on its website to further encourage members to get involved.

At the same time, we contacted the seven LSC-funded entities in Florida to advise them of our plan of action, our coordination with the local bar organizations, and that we would be working to drum up as many volunteers as possible to try to make sure that the LSC grantees did not become inundated as a result of the storm. As part of our coordination efforts, we gave advance notice that some of our volunteers might need to work with or refer matters to the LSC grantees if the volunteer attorneys needed to consult a subject matter expert or could not handle the commitment that a given case required.

In addition to connecting with the LSC entities, The Florida Bar Foundation’s director of pro bono partnerships graciously connected us to 21 additional legal aid organizations that receive grants from the Foundation to provide free civil legal assistance to the poor. She also generously shared her time and expertise, and spread the plan of action to Foundation-grantee organizations, as well as numerous other legal aid programs, law schools, and law firms coordinating pro bono throughout Florida. Not only did the dedicated LSC entities and legal aid organizations throughout Florida embrace the ABA DLS team’s efforts to coordinate the implementation of a disaster relief hotline, they also invited us to become a part of their established network of advocates who communicated regularly through various listservs and conference calls about the needs arising from the storm, the resources available to legal aid professionals and affected communities, and various developments in the provision of and qualifications for state and federal assistance.

Beyond these stalwart supporters, other unsung heroes stepped up. Leaders from the Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo), which includes over 180 attorneys managing pro bono practices for over 100 of the country’s largest law firms, reached out upon learning of our efforts. APBCo members encouraged their respective firms to provide volunteers for the hotline, offered office space and equipment for legal service organizations affected by the storm, and helped organize and prepare training for volunteer attorneys responding to Hurricane Irma. These firm leaders shared institutional knowledge and lessons learned from their recent efforts in mobilizing lawyers to aid disaster recovery projects after Hurricane Harvey and prior efforts following Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and September 11th.

Law schools also embraced the call to service, recognizing the value in giving back and the experiential learning and networking opportunities for students who offered to provide research assistance to volunteer attorneys handling cases from the hotline. Stetson University College of Law led the way by launching Stetson’s Disaster Research Project—an on-campus collaborative initiative to serve communities impacted by disaster. Through this project, Stetson law students conduct legal research for attorneys helping disaster survivors through the hotline. Law students not only aid the relief efforts, build relationships with current practitioners, and ensure that more people get the help they need, their research assistance also enable volunteer attorneys to take on more cases without getting overburdened while balancing other client demands. This encourages additional attorneys to get involved as they have the confidence of knowing that they have support to keep them from becoming inundated by volunteering on top of their already busy practices. The project undoubtedly presents a rewarding experience for the lawyers and students involved in addition to helping to keep the hard-working attorneys at Florida’s legal aid organizations from receiving too great an influx of disaster legal work and helping to ensure that Floridians get the help they need. Stetson also welcomed and integrated law students from other schools outside of Florida into their relief efforts, offering to host and involve students from American University College of Law on their visit to Florida to provide relief.

Other law schools within Florida and beyond also reached out to lend support to the relief hotline and volunteers manning it. In bridging the gap from academia to practice, these schools and their students further ensured that Floridians need not rebuild their lives alone. Our director of DLS deftly balanced initiating and overseeing ongoing disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in California to prepare timely briefs on strategy, progress and insights from the response in Texas to Hurricane Harvey and the other simultaneous recovery projects. We connected with these seasoned “second” responders to discuss what worked and how we could build economies of scale and share materials we prepared to disseminate relief information and guidance to wider audiences.

The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar YLD, and the ABA YLD issued press releases about the hotline, compiled available resources, and published websites with calls to action and ways to get involved. The presidents of The Florida Bar, its YLD, and the ABA devoted their time and attention to advocating for more volunteers and awareness. Many others took to social media to disseminate information about the efforts and resources available to those affected. Various media outlets aided the relief efforts by spreading awareness of the hotline and other forms of assistance.

While the media announced its availability to the public, word of the hotline spread in legal circles to the most respected figure in the Florida judicial system. Chief Justice Labarga of the Florida Supreme Court recognized the many individuals who stepped up to establish, publicize and volunteer for the hotline, as well as other laudable initiatives implemented to help Floridians, in a press release published by the Supreme Court of Florida on October 11, 2017. This recognition cemented what many volunteers noticed as they joined in the effort: the operation of the hotline helped to fulfill the respective missions of FEMA and the ABA to support the response, recovery and mitigation of disasters and foster the professional and personal development of lawyers.

For attorneys like me, the experience has presented great opportunities for growth in learning about other practices and in building and working as a team. Having received training from FEMA, but not actually worked through a disaster response before, I learned that flexibility and dialogue lead to new opportunities. Linda, Andrew, Austin and others with the ABA contributed to the plan of action, which we realized need not be an immaculate law review article, but rather a working, accessible document that contained lists of relevant contacts, resources, and the “big picture” of our response while maintaining room for adaptation to best deliver legal services depending on the needs that arose and the partnerships we developed. We asked bar leaders, legal aid providers and lawyers in an array of practice settings to freely disseminate the plan, but we also invited feedback and ideas. This encouraged attorneys to engage in the effort and increased involvement as they tangibly and emotionally invested in what became a joint undertaking.

Beyond building teamwork and leadership skills and creating mutually beneficial partnerships, additional benefits flow from volunteering to provide disaster legal services—an observation that many attorneys who donate their time through pro bono have recently recounted. Among other things, you can build your network and develop mentors, both within your organization and beyond, to form friendships and sponsorships that will add meaning and longevity to your career. You can help increase access to justice, build transferable skills and gain experience, and boost morale. You can collaborate with in-house counsel to further build rapport and solidify client relationships. For these reasons, my firm and many others embraced the attorneys among their ranks who devoted their time to assisting these efforts. Partners, associates and firm leadership from numerous offices joined together to encourage attorneys in my firm to get involved, and other firms did the same. You don’t need to cast aside your personal and professional development goals to pursue pro bono; rather they go hand-in-hand.

The benefits of pro bono have long been espoused by ABA leaders and ingrained in my firm, like many others. Former ABA President Chesterfield Smith left behind a large legacy in our firm. Among many other memorable lessons in leadership, he is often remembered for sharing two, oft-repeated pieces of advice: “be somebody” and “do good.” Through pro bono and in joining ongoing efforts to provide disaster legal services, you can be somebody in your community and the bar and do good for others.

Unfortunately, disaster will inevitably strike our communities again and affect vulnerable populations who lack adequate resources to obtain the legal guidance necessary to address the numerous disruptions caused by a catastrophe. I hope this article contributes to future recovery efforts by sharing an overview of what happened recently in Florida, and encourages attorneys to recognize the benefits of stepping up to serve their communities. This article sought to identify some of the many selfless and devoted groups and individuals involved in the response to Hurricane Irma. Future volunteers should have confidence that they won’t be alone in lending their assistance to relief efforts, as attorneys rise to the challenge of ensuring that those in need aren’t alone in rebuilding their lives.

About the Author

Anthony J. Palermo is an associate at Holland & Knight LLP in Tampa, Florida,  and is the ABA YLD district representative for Florida and a member of The Florida Bar YLD Board of Governors. Contact him at 813.227.6320 or Anthony.Palermo@hklaw.com.

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