Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Reflections on "Public Service in a Time of Crisis"

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Reflections on "Public Service in a Time of Crisis"

Article excerpt


The New York and national legal community are to be commended for their organized, systematic response to 9/11. This Volume of the Fordham Urban Law Journal affords a valuable opportunity to consider the lessons derived from disaster legal assistance, both to improve on the crisis response model and to design systems for ongoing delivery of pro bono services in the absence of dramatic, precipitating events.

Disasters come in many sizes and forms. As usually defined, the word "disaster" refers to "a calamitous event, especially one occurring suddenly and causing great loss of life, damage or hardship, as a flood, airplane crash, or business failure." (1) Disasters can result from forces of nature, from human actions, or a combination of both. Bombings, massacres, and similar terrorist attacks inflict large-scale loss of life, serious injuries, and property damage. (2) Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis may take an ever greater toll, killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of people and destroying billions of dollars worth of property. (3) Smaller scale disasters also regularly occur: wildfires, tornados, train wrecks, bridge collapses, and maritime accidents. Sudden, dramatic, and horrible disasters prompt extraordinary volunteerism from the entire community. In all walks of life, ordinary time is suspended, riveting attention to the crisis at hand. Everyone feels compelled to do whatever they can to help, including those in the legal community. (4)

Whatever the cause, all of these events are physically dramatic, and result in extensive personal, property, economic, and environmental harm. Public response varies with the extent of loss, moral outrage, and the community's sense of violation. The events of 9/11 shocked the nation and much of the world. Firefighters became national heroes because they could do something tangible: search, rescue, and remove the dead for burial.

The legal community's remarkable response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should be viewed in that context. As trained professional technicians, skilled at designing creative solutions to vexing problems, lawyers were prompted to help to alleviate the human suffering. Serendipitously, New York's first ever Access to Justice Conference was scheduled to begin in Albany the morning of September 11, with over 250 participants concerned about delivery of legal services scheduled to attend. (5) Because the conference machinery was set in place, and committed lawyers physically present (and out of harm's way), the fortuitous timing enabled prompt organization of disaster legal assistance. Thus, although the enormous losses from the attacks required an unprecedented level of disaster legal assistance, New York's legal community, which had long paid thoughtful attention to its pro bono responsibilities, (6) rose quickly to the challenge.

This Essay reflects upon the lessons learned from the legal community's massive effort to help sort out the legal problems of those affected by the tragic events of 9/11, and then applies those lessons to the challenge of designing delivery of pro bono services for less spectacular and hence less sympathetic disasters. It considers what design strategies were particularly effective, how these pro bono efforts were different from other disaster relief legal programs, and how these experiences can inform nationwide deliberations on expanding Access to Justice. The greater challenge for the legal profession is in delivering sufficient and sustainable pro bono legal services for everyday disasters, such as poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, crime, domestic violence, and deprivation of civil liberties. These disasters are not as sudden, dramatic, or immediately damaging, hence they do not provoke a national outpouring of empathy, generosity, or volunteerism. And yet, these ordinary disasters result in enormous untold harms to those affected. …

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