Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Preparing for the Worst: Re-Envisioning Disaster Legal Relief in the Era of Homeland Security

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Preparing for the Worst: Re-Envisioning Disaster Legal Relief in the Era of Homeland Security

Article excerpt


The New York legal community's response to the September 11th disaster defies the usual stereotypes of the legal profession. Ambulance chasers and sharks were in short supply. Instead, in the weeks and months following the World Trade Center attacks, New York's bar channeled an unprecedented outpouring of support into uncompensated pro bono efforts on behalf of victims and their families. While pro bono assistance was available to all victims, special attention was given to matters facing needy individuals that would not generate fees. (1) The bar even stood behind efforts to minimize the subsequent litigation, with the American Trial Lawyers Association ("ATLA"), through its subsidiary Trial Lawyers Care, offering free counseling to family members considering pursuing monetary relief through the federal Victims' Compensation Fund. (2)

As described in Public Service in a Time of Crisis: A Report and Retrospective on the Legal Community's Response to the Events of September 11, 2001 (hereinafter, the ABCNY Fund Report), (3) there is little to fault in the bar's response to the September 11th disaster. Bar leaders worked under extreme pressure--in some instances, having suffered losses themselves--to devise a sound approach to assisting with others' needs. The "facilitator" model of providing advice and representation was a sensitive and effective solution to the problem of clients facing multiple issues and multiple lawyers representing a single client. And literally thousands of lawyers donated time and resources to provide legal assistance to those in need. (4) In short, the New York bar's disaster response deserves consideration as a national model for such efforts.

At the same time, as tremendous as the bar's response was, it is worth examining on a more systemic level the national approach to providing legal assistance in disasters. In the current global political climate, we can anticipate that there will be more disasters giving rise to legal needs, including attacks by domestic or international terrorists. Given this heightened need for disaster preparedness, efficient, non-duplicative use of legal resources is a key issue. There is much to learn from the ABCNY Fund Report in that regard. Nevertheless we should also consider whether there is an even more efficient and comprehensive way to administer legal assistance in the context of a disaster.

As reflected in the New York experience, disaster legal relief across the United States is typically handled by private pro bono practitioners who mobilize quickly after the disaster strikes. Considering that pro bono legal work generally serves three overlapping purposes: 1) providing legal assistance to the client(s); 2) expanding individual lawyers' visions of their role in the community and society; and 3) raising the profession's standing with the public (5)--we should at least ask whether each of these purposes are being best achieved by the current approach to disaster legal services. (6)

First, in terms of providing actual assistance to individuals, the New York City bar had tremendous success in mobilizing a legal response to the September 11th attacks. The overall numbers are impressive. But numbers do not tell the whole story. In New York and elsewhere, pro bono lawyers providing disaster legal services often lack expertise in the relevant areas and may have little prior experience with the client community affected by the disaster. Both of these factors may affect pro bono attorneys' ability to reach and to assist clients, even if the bar's mobilization efforts are effective in enlisting volunteers. (7) Further, New York City's experience may be sui generis. Collectively, the New York City bar has extraordinary resources. No other community in the United States would be able to call upon such a high level of private legal resources--both in terms of numbers and caliber--in the event of a disaster. (8) Finally, while the New York bar apparently avoided demoralizing turf battles and the inefficiencies that accompany them, other communities--in all likelihood, those without such extensive resources to draw on--might not be so fortunate. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.