Turning the tide: Bar associations and foundations battle Gulf Coast hurricanes

Volume 30 Number 3

By

The destruction, the disruption, and the despair spawned by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region have been virtually unprecedented in U.S. history. The nation has watched and read with sorrow and compassion since August 29 as people have struggled to regain and rebuild their homes, their families, and their careers in the wake of the most costly hurricane in history. The appearance of a second storm, Rita, just a few weeks later compounded the woes for many.

The significance of Katrina has not been lost on the nation’s legal community. “This is really an unprecedented crisis in our legal system,” says ABA President Michael Greco, “and it’s wonderful the way lawyers have responded.” Not only have lawyers and bar associations and foundations reached out to help other lawyers and bars, they have also come together to help rebuild shattered justice systems and to offer legal and financial help to the thousands of victims of the hurricanes. And the work continues today.

In this issue of Bar Leader, we focus on just a few of the many, many people and organizations that have been profoundly affected by the storm and what they’re doing to recover. We also highlight just a handful of the attorneys, bar associations, and bar foundations that have lent a hand of help and hope to their fellow attorneys and associations, as well as to the citizens of the Gulf Coast.

Their stories, and others, will continue to unfold over the coming weeks and months. And while many of these tales might seem frustrating and hopeless, there is a thread of determination and anticipation that runs through them. People are eager to get back on their feet—and lawyers, bar associations, and bar foundations are just as eager to help them.

There was the usual sense of efficiency, rather than urgency, as Helena Henderson and her staff at the New Orleans Bar Association began preparing for the city’s anticipated brush with Hurricane Katrina last August. Storm preparations, after all, were nothing new in this low-lying city that has seen a number of tropical storms skirt by over the years.

As computers were moved away from the 12th story windows and an assistant grabbed computer backup tapes, Henderson got her laptop computer ready to go. She wasn’t overly concerned, even after discovering a short time later that she had left the computer in the office.

“We thought that this was going to be a three-day event, that we would be back,” says Henderson, her voice cracking. “We didn’t think this was our lives changing forever.”

But that was before the drenching rains fell, the wind-whipped Gulf of Mexico surged ashore, and the manmade levees that protected New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain failed. Henderson and hundreds of thousands of other residents of New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas soon discovered their lives would, indeed, be transformed.

“Just six blocks from my house, there is no electricity,” Henderson said when Bar Leader spoke with her in late November. “There are just blocks and blocks of dead city. There’s a municipal death that has happened here. These are very emotional times for us.”

Months later, those emotions still run high in many places that were in the path of Katrina and her powerful hurricane cousin, Rita, which managed to lash parts of Louisiana and Texas. Many who fled and saw their homes and businesses destroyed or damaged have vowed never to return. Others have been streaming back or making plans to return from temporary havens, vowing to rebuild.

Those emotions are similar for the area’s legal communities as well. While some lawyers are not coming back to the hurricane zone, others say it’s their home and they want to return. The storms are also testing the mettle of the area’s bar associations and foundations, many of which have faced—and continue to confront—communications and financial hurdles, while struggling to carry out their core missions of helping members and supporting the legal profession.

Using a combination of technology and tenacity—while gathering support from colleagues across the country—many bars have become invaluable touchstones for their members and their communities.

Many lawyers and bar leaders agree that Katrina has truly forever changed their cities, towns, and legal communities. The storm, they say, not only exposed shortcomings, but also uncovered strengths that continue to shine. And it is those strengths that will be sorely needed as members of the legal community dig out and rebuild, along with the rest of their Gulf Coast neighbors.

‘We thought we dodged a bullet’

With one eye on weather forecasts and another on plans for the coming week, Henderson headed to Pensacola, Fla., to spend time with family, while Louisiana State Bar Association Executive Director Loretta Larsen left New Orleans for her second home in Lafayette, La., 150 miles to the west. Also in Lafayette was LSBA President Frank Neuner Jr.—which later proved to be fortuitous, Larsen says.

Tucked away safely inland in Jackson, Miss., Mississippi Bar Executive Director Larry Houchins was more concerned about communities such as Biloxi and Gulfport, which were directly in Katrina’s crosshairs. Mississippi Bar President Joy Lambert Phillips was in Gulfport, where she rode out the storm at her home, 2 miles inland. While her house sustained relatively minor damage, it soon became apparent to her that Katrina would be a major problem for hundreds of lawyers on the Gulf Coast.

When Katrina made landfall east of New Orleans on the morning of August 29 with 140-mile-per-hour winds, there was little doubt that it would be a devastating hurricane. But still, there was cause for some optimism in that city.

“We were high-fiving each other the night the storm came through. We thought we dodged another bullet,” says New Orleans attorney Richard Barker, who waited out the storm with his family 200 miles away in Lake Charles, La. “Then we woke up the next morning and saw that the levees broke, and we knew we were in trouble.”

Henderson, Larsen, and Houchins turned on their televisions and joined the rest of the country in horror as they watched deadly floodwaters envelop New Orleans and catastrophic wind and water savage the Mississippi coast. “Our legal services lawyers—their hearts were just ripped out,” Henderson says. “When you saw these people in the Superdome in those conditions, it was awful. These people were our clients. These were our people.”

Unable to get into the city and stymied by poor communications, the seemingly simple act of finding people and making sure they were safe became a top priority for bars. Stuck in Florida, Henderson secured a wireless phone there and, thanks to a lending hand from the Atlanta Bar Association—which sent a laptop computer and an IT specialist—she did her best to start locating staffers and bar members.

“It was weeks before I found my board of directors,” Henderson says. Where she once relied on a staff of more than 20 full- and part-time employees, by mid-November there were eight. “The rest are gone,” she says. “They have no homes. They couldn’t return, and even if they did, I don’t have the money to pay them.”

Recovery efforts begin

Within a week of the storm, Larsen and Neuner were able to establish a makeshift temporary location for state bar operations at Neuner’s Lafayette law office. And working through contacts at the Louisiana Supreme Court and the State Police, Larsen and Neuner were able to get into New Orleans, load Neuner’s SUV with the bar’s computer servers and a few computers (which were all dry and undamaged), and return to Lafayette to set up operations.

Henderson made a similar run, navigating 12 flights of stairs in 110-degree heat at the bar’s headquarters to get vital equipment and papers, also mostly dry and undamaged. “You were told that there were still looters and shooters around, so we made it quick,” she says.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Phillips was finally able—after a week’s effort—to connect with Houchins and the rest of the association’s board. Phillips and the board moved into action. The association joined forces with the Mississippi Bar Foundation to establish a grant program to assist displaced attorneys. “Our goal was to try and assist the attorneys return to their practices as soon as possible,” Phillips says.

Soon after the storm, Phillips, President-elect York Craig, and other bar members also began meeting with local judges and bar associations to assess their needs and to see what the state bar could do to help. Phillips also met with the state chief justice to help develop plans to get the state’s legal system back on its feet in the Gulf Coast areas hit hardest by Katrina.

The three staffed bar associations in Louisiana that were spared the brunt of Katrina—Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport—immediately began to take action and combine resources to help in the disaster relief effort, according to Patti Guin, executive director of the Shreveport Bar Association. “Our Web sites provided much-needed information to people—legal and nonlegal,” she says.

The Baton Rouge Bar Association provided office space to the LSBA while the Lafayette offices were readied, and later worked with the LSBA and the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division to run a legal hotline for citizens displaced by the hurricane. The center, staffed by legal assistance provider volunteers, eventually moved to the Louisiana State University Law School, also in Baton Rouge.

During the six weeks that the Baton Rouge bar housed the hotline, it was staffed seven days a week, for 12 hours a day, according to Executive Director Ann Scarle. More than 4,000 calls were answered, and more than 3,000 people were provided with legal assistance.

In Mississippi, the bar’s Young Lawyers Division manned legal assistance hotlines and visited storm victims, offering help in a variety of areas. By mid-November, the YLD had fielded more than 4,200 inquiries from storm survivors, according to Houchins.

It wasn’t just members of the public who needed help after the storm. By mid-November, the Mississippi Bar Foundation had received $260,000 in donations and had distributed $130,000 of that in $1,000 to $2,000 grants to about 120 Mississippi lawyers and firms affected by the storm, according to Houchins, also the foundation’s secretary-treasurer. “We sent it to people who had just a slab or a shell of their business left,” he says.

By early December, a disaster relief fund administered by the Louisiana State Bar Foundation had collected more than $440,000 to assist attorneys, fueled by donations from bar associations, bar foundations, and other organizations across the country, Larsen says. Through the fund, the foundation had issued grants of $500 each to 600-plus lawyers who were some of the most severely displaced and needy after the storm and flooding.

Many of the lawyers most deeply affected by the storms have been reaching out to help others, according to several bar executives. It’s proof, they say, that when disaster strikes, the legal community is always ready to help.

Larsen recalls hearing from one LSBA member who evacuated from her home with literally just the clothes on her back. Unable to reach her home and her office destroyed, the attorney asked a favor: “She said, ‘I want to volunteer at the FEMA tables [helping storm victims], but I don’t have any clothes. I don’t look like a lawyer. Do you know where I can get some?’ ”

The financial impact

All of the bar associations were instrumental in working with the state and local court systems on issues such as court calendars and courtroom space. In New Orleans, Henderson arranged to have the city’s Small Claims Court hold sessions in a suite at the bar association’s building.

The LSBA led an effort to suspend continuing legal education requirements through the end of 2005, while in Mississippi, the bar was supportive of a move to push some CLE requirements back (lawyers now have 24 months to complete 24 CLE hours).

The decision to suspend CLE—while critical for lawyers still assessing damage to their homes and businesses—underscored another looming problem for Gulf Coast bar associations: budgets.

Income derived from CLE and other events from September through December provides about 80 percent of the New Orleans bar’s revenue for the year, according to Henderson. And while reserves have been helpful, Henderson knows more must be done to improve the financial situation—and a dues increase is not the answer. “I can’t collect dues right now,” she says. “We’re not in a good position to go into next year.”

Resignations and layoffs have cut Larsen’s staff at the LSBA from 32 to 20. “We’ve had to think of ways of managing things that didn’t require a lot of people,” says Larsen, noting that heavy reliance on the bar’s Web site is one solution (see “Technology to the rescue,” page 14). “We’re going to lose at least 1,000 members just on relocation—and some of the larger firms have laid people off.”

Scarle says the Baton Rouge bar will likely use most of its reserves for 2005, and the lingering economic impact of the storm means 2006 will not likely be much better. In Shreveport, Guin says the bar is contemplating a law expo, and an Executive Council retreat is planned in the spring to discuss fundraising and programs with staff members from the ABA Division for Bar Services.

A lot of work ahead

The Louisiana bar’s Neuner was going through the association’s new mail around Thanksgiving in New Orleans when he noticed the August postmarks.

No, he says, things are not really back to normal in the months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The city’s lawyers are no exception. “There’s still this kind of general malaise,” he says. “[Lawyers] are still dealing with a lot of personal issues, instead of work.”

Neuner is confident the state’s legal community and its citizens will recover from Katrina, but he says it will take time—and resources. For one thing, most of the funding for the attorneys appointed to defend the indigent comes from traffic fines, which have shrunk dramatically since New Orleans was deserted.

“There are two huge areas where we will need help: civil legal services for the poor, and criminal legal services for the poor,” Neuner says.

Like Neuner, other bar leaders in the Gulf Coast say recovery—both for the legal community, and communities as a whole—will not be measured in weeks or months, but in years. Houchins says it is inevitable that psychological counseling will be needed for many as they struggle to put the loss and the devastation behind them; his bar has been working to provide preliminary counseling for lawyers.

One of the Mississippi Bar’s most critical missions over the coming months, Phillips says, will be working with local bars in the coastal counties most affected by the storm. Many lawyers there had their businesses and associated paperwork, equipment, and offices totally or partially devastated by the storm.

“We’re trying to have a network of eyes and ears,” she says. “This has affected solo and small firms the most—and they’re the bread-and-butter lawyers [in Mississippi]. I feel like no matter what we’re going to do, it’s never going to be enough.

“I’m afraid that there are going to be some attorneys who fall through the cracks.”

The state bar needs to serve as a beacon of encouragement and motivation for lawyers and nonlawyers alike as the long rebuilding process continues, Phillips adds.

“I’m starting to see a sense of frustration. People are saying, ‘I’m tired of seeing all this damage, of seeing all this debris piling up,’ ” she says. “We have to remind attorneys that, ‘Yes, it’s a big task, but it has to be done.’

“All of us believe attorneys are critical to this rebuilding.”

Life goes on

Despite the frustration, there is determination, hope, and a spirit of camaraderie as the struggle on the road to recovery continues. In New Orleans, the first social gathering of attorneys since Katrina—a “Welcome Home” happy hour in October, shortly after the New Orleans bar returned to its offices—attracted not the handful of people that Henderson expected, but more than 130.

In Shreveport, the bar could not back out of its annual “Recent Developments by the Judiciary” CLE seminar held at a casino in October. The seminar normally attracts more than 250 lawyers; about 140 still managed to make it to this year’s event, Guin says.

The Mississippi Bar will soon give the CLE portion of its annual meeting a third try. The meeting was held in July of last year in the Florida Panhandle city of Destin, but Hurricane Dennis, with its 120-mile-per-hour winds and flooding rains lashing at Destin’s doorstep, forced the bar to cancel the CLE portion of the meeting. Many lawyers take the opportunity to fulfill their annual CLE requirements all at once at the meeting, Phillips notes.

The CLE portion was rescheduled for August 29 in Jackson, Miss. By that time, Hurricane Katrina was bearing down of the Gulf Coast.

“We thought we were safe inland, but two hours into the meetings, the power went out and we had to cancel,” Phillips says. “We’ve rescheduled for February. We really hope there aren’t any hurricanes then.”

The LSBA contemplated canceling its annual pre-Thanksgiving “CLE and the City” trip to New York, but bar members balked. “They said they needed to go,” Larsen says. “They told us, ‘We need a break. We need to get away.’ ” Instead of the usual 40 to 50 members, the trip attracted 72.

While few lawyers expect the road to rebuilding their lives, their practices, and their communities to be an easy one, bar leaders say optimism is still a pervasive word.

“We’re here. We’re glad to be back,” says past LSBA President Wayne Lee, who heads the commercial litigation practices at Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann in New Orleans. “The lawyers are part of New Orleans because they love the city. I think that most of them are looking to rebuild.”

Henderson is also looking forward to the rebirth.

“I think lawyers still want programs. They are very loyal to New Orleans,” she says. “There is a tremendous legal need here—and I do know that there will be a New Orleans Bar Association.” BL

 

ONE LAWYER’S STORY

Attorney Harold Grissom was channel surfing in his Montgomery, Ala., hotel room on the day Hurricane Katrina blasted ashore, when video of a devastating storm surge pummeling a Gulfport, Miss., office building froze him in fear.

The office that he saw being swallowed by the windswept Gulf of Mexico was his own.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” says Grissom, a solo practitioner who specializes in matrimonial law. “I was thinking, ‘How on earth do you reconstruct your client base?’ But I’m more fortunate than many. There were a lot of folks who lost everything except the clothes on their backs.”

Today, Grissom finds himself in a new office just a few hundred yards from his old locale, working behind a makeshift desk he built himself. One by one, he is reconnecting with clients while trying to piece his practice back together.

Grissom is making a comeback, like many other lawyers who saw their businesses and/or homes damaged and destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With a little help from their families, friends, bar associations, and bar foundations, Grissom and others are confident they will rebuild their practices, as well as their communities. More important, Grissom says, they’re helping each other. “The Gulf Coast attorneys,” he says, “couldn’t do it without the support of each other.”

For Grissom, the arduous task of rebuilding began just a few days after Katrina. Armed with water bottles and cans of andouille sausage in case he had to walk 12 hours or more around police barricades, Grissom returned to Gulfport to find a blown-down traffic light occupying the space where his office once stood. “Chickens come in at the port, so the stench of chickens was everywhere,” he says.

After walking for several blocks in the area near his office, he stumbled across one of his office computers in the street. Another computer was found a few blocks in another direction.

The Mississippi Bar pointed Grissom to DriveSavers, a company specializing in restoring water-damaged computers that was offering steep discounts to hurricane victims. Fortunately for Grissom, the company was able to retrieve much of the

computerized information that was feared lost.

As for the paper files in Grissom’s office, they were a complete loss—except for one bundle that was found in his briefcase, several blocks from his office in a bank building. He recalls, “They called and said, ‘Come get your briefcase. It’s smelly. It’s starting to stink up the whole place.’ ”

With no way to contact his clients and with his business in shambles, Grissom struggled to rebuild not only his business, but also his nearby home, which suffered more than $50,000 in damage. In early November, he finally opened his new office, a space further from the shoreline that he had found before the storm.

With the help of a $1,000 grant from the Mississippi Bar Foundation, Grissom continued to rebuild. He also began hearing again from clients. “Somehow, they find you,” he says. “I’ve got a private, unlisted cell phone, and I was still getting lots of calls.”

One client, the Long Beach Port Commission, also has a daunting challenge, he adds: “Right now, the port is gone, but we’re working on that.”

Grissom has also taken steps to secure his records, enlisting a company that stores his information on out-of-state computer servers, backing up and storing his computer information every afternoon. “It was a learning experience. It was a costly experience,” he says.

But Grissom, like many others in the Gulf Coast, is confident he will be able to rebound from Katrina.

“It’s going to take several years,” he says. “In truth, I think it’s going to be better than it was.”
—R.J.D.

 

SOLO LAWYERS HIT ESPECIALLY HARD

Like so many small firm and solo attorneys in the Gulf Coast, Richard Barker’s tale is an ironic saga of “before and after.”

Before Katrina? He and an old law school chum shared office space in a 19th Century townhouse just outside New Orleans’ French Quarter.

After Katrina? He and a secretary were squeezed into spare office space above his brother’s General Motors dealership in the heart of Cajun Country in Houma, La.

Before Katrina? A personal injury attorney, he was busy preparing a pair of potentially high-fee cases to bolster his fledgling solo practice, while also sifting through other potential cases.

After Katrina? A mostly closed and clogged court system left him in precarious financial straits, driving several hours to meet potential clients in a borrowed conference room.

“I’m not proud to say it, but I had to get in line for FEMA assistance. I had to get in line for unemployment benefits and for food stamp credit cards,” he says. “And I wasn’t the only lawyer in line.”

While thousands of lawyers throughout the area were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, solo and small firm practitioners were particularly hard hit, bar leaders say. And with 70 to 75 percent of their members practicing on their own or in firms of five associates or less, the Louisiana State Bar Association and the New Orleans Bar Association devoted much of their time and resources to helping those members.

“It struck me that immediately after the storm, the bar members were divided into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ ” says Ann Scarle, executive director of the Baton Rouge Bar Association, which lent assistance to displaced attorneys. “The ‘haves’ tended to be either with a larger firm with resources to help provide shelter, clothing, and employment, or had the financial reserves and foresight to find shelter, clothing, and employment on their own, while the ‘have-nots’ were not so lucky.”

The larger firms were among the first to return to the affected areas, bar executives say, with many firms sending associates to other offices in drier climes before they came back. Solo and small practitioners like Barker often had to be more resourceful.

A native of Houma, Barker, his wife, and two children stayed with family members for more than three months, while Barker worked in his temporary office. He also called on lawyer acquaintances in Hammond, La.—north of New Orleans—to use their conference room to meet with clients from Alabama.

Barker readily concedes that he was luckier than many colleagues in that his office stayed dry and his home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, La., sustained only minor damage. But like many small and solo practitioners, his biggest headaches were financial, as shuttered courts and hard-to-find lawyers and clients made for light workloads.

“My reserves were paying my secretary’s salary and my clients’ living expenses,” he says. “New cases are coming in, but how do I survive between now and then?” Like many attorneys, he has applied to the Louisiana State Bar Foundation for a $500 grant to defray his costs.

When Barker moves back to his office—a move he had planned to accomplish by early January—he expects he’ll be doing things a little differently, such as outsourcing dictation work and backing up computer files to off-site locales.

“I might open a satellite office in Houma. It will give me something to fall back on if this happens again,” he says, but adds quickly, “I hope I never have to go through this again.”
—R.J.D.

 

“HOW CAN WE HELP?”

It didn’t take long for Larry Houchins’ telephone to start ringing, or for his e-mail box to fill up. As images of the death and destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina appeared across the country, Houchins began hearing from bar colleagues nationwide.

Their messages were simple, he says: “ ‘How can we help?’ ”

“It means a lot to know you’re being thought of,” says Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar. “We’ve been astounded by the response.” Along with cash from all over the country, donations of furniture, office equipment, and clothing have come from bars as far away as Minnesota, Houchins notes.

Help has come in many forms for many people in the weeks after the devastation of Katrina, which was followed closely by a second destructive hurricane, Rita.

Lawyers, bar associations, and bar foundations nationwide have offered cash, services, equipment—even people—not only to their legal brethren in the Gulf Coast, but also to the many organizations helping all residents recover.

Even before Katrina made landfall, ABA President Michael Greco appointed a task force to address the various legal and humanitarian issues that Gulf Coast residents would face in the storm’s aftermath. Greco also sent a letter to the president of the Conference of Chief Justices, urging him to ask his colleagues to lead efforts to temporarily suspend unauthorized practice of law measures in their states in order to allow displaced lawyers to practice legally in other states. It was a move that many states made.

Bar associations’ young lawyers divisions often step in when disaster strikes, and the ABA Young Lawyers Division was no exception: It teamed up with the Federal Emergency Management Association to offer a toll-free hotline for those in the Gulf Coast who are in need of legal assistance.

Many state bar associations and foundations established funds or directed their members to send money directly to various charitable organizations, as well as the Mississippi and Louisiana state bar foundations. And it wasn’t just cash that crossed borders.

Several staffers from the State Bar of Texas went to neighboring Louisiana to assist bar members, while many bar members went on their own to various shelters set up to provide legal help for victims, says Kelly Frels, immediate past president of the Texas bar and chair of its Disaster Relief Task Force. “We’re proud of how they responded,” he says.

Food, clothing, legal assistance, money: All that, and much more, came to Louisiana—in particular, the New Orleans area—from the largest voluntary bar in Texas, the Houston Bar Association. Telephone calls and e-mail “blasts” went out to members from bar headquarters within days of the storm, says HBA President Randall O. Sorrels.

“We had more offers of housing and office space from members than what was needed,” Sorrels says.

The Houston bar learned some of its hurricane lessons in 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison dumped several inches of rain on the area, flooding many law offices and catching many attorneys unprepared for such a disaster. Offices were destroyed, files were lost, and lawyers were displaced, causing short-term chaos in the city’s legal community.

Aside from the need for office space, the HBA also knew that Louisiana citizens would be looking for legal help to survive. An early example of the Houston legal community’s awareness and generosity came when the bar sent out an e-mail over the Labor Day weekend—days after the storm—asking for lawyers to help volunteer to provide legal assistance for the Katrina refugees who had poured into Texas.

“We were expecting 25, maybe 50 lawyers to show up. We had 425 who showed up,” Sorrels says. “I’m convinced that when a disaster comes, lawyers will step up and do what they can to help.”

The Florida Bar’s experience in dealing with tropical storms (four socked the state in 2004) also proved invaluable to many attorneys. J.R. Phelps, director of the bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service, traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi for free seminars to talk with lawyers about disaster preparedness and how to rebuild a law practice after a disaster.

In West Virginia, teams of lawyers and law students visited storm evacuees at a National Guard facility to discuss legal issues such as Social Security benefits, mortgages, and other financial information. “Within 48 hours, we had a list of 100 lawyers who would either go to the camp or make themselves available for telephone consultation,” says Tom Tinder, executive director of the West Virginia State Bar.

Bar leaders in the Gulf Coast say words can’t express their gratitude for the assistance given by their colleagues across the country. They also say their need for help is ongoing, especially because recovering residents haven’t yet had a chance to fully focus on their legal situations.

“It was very heartwarming to see the response from people,” says New Orleans lawyer and past LSBA President Wayne Lee. “But I hope people realize that it’s far from over here. There’s still a lot of need.”

—R.J.D.

 

ABA moves Midyear, but hopes to see New Orleans soon

Memo from American Bar Association President Michael Greco to the city of New Orleans: We want to try again.

Greco says the ABA is exploring options to bring “a major ABA meeting” to New Orleans as soon as possible to make up for the 2006 Midyear Meeting that was postponed and moved to Chicago.

“We’re ready to look at planning as soon as they tell us they’re ready down there,” Greco says. “The ABA wants to help the city recover.”

Greco says he and the ABA Board of Governors waited as long as possible before deciding to move the meeting to Chicago’s Hyatt Regency, February 8 to 13. The Board of Governors signed off on the move after New Orleans officials stated that the city would not be ready for conventions of any sort until at least April 1.

The shift to Chicago will actually be a money saver for the ABA, Greco says, but that has also created another opportunity to help the beleaguered city. Money saved from the change will be donated to a New Orleans relief organization, and the hotel hosting the meeting will donate $10 per person, per room night, to the fundraising effort as well.

The pledge to return was welcomed by bar leaders in Louisiana. “I’m confident the ABA made the right decision, and I’m confident that they’ll be back,” says Louisiana State Bar Association Executive Director Loretta Larsen.

As the city struggles to recover, one of the best ways for people to help, says New Orleans Bar Association Executive Director Helena Henderson, is for tourists and visitors to return. “We need people to spend locally, to invest in New Orleans,” she says. “You are going to witness the rebirth of an American city.”
—R.J.D.

 

TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE

Faced with erratic phone service and people scattered throughout the country, many bars turned to one form of communication that played a vital role in linking people and disseminating information: the Internet.

With an estimated 900 attorneys in three counties affected by the storm, “We took the approach that we had to do something right away, so we immediately started putting things up on our Web site.” says Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar. “We could not have done everything we did without our Web site, the message board, and e-mail.”

The Web was a critical tool for the Louisiana State Bar Association, too. After reassembling computer operations in Lafayette—with some help from five people from the State Bar of Texas—the Louisiana bar resumed operation of its site, making it a clearinghouse of information, with everything from court schedules to message boards that helped put people in touch with missing family, friends, clients, and colleagues. That became not only a way to track down employees, but also a way to bring the bar community back together. “That was great to have,” says Louisiana lawyer Richard Barker. “It was worth a million bucks to me.”

A decision to locate its Web server out of state proved helpful to the New Orleans Bar Association, which kept its site up throughout the disaster, providing another source of information for attorneys, says Executive Director Helena Henderson. Using the Web site, wireless phone calls, and text messages, she was able to amass a database of more than 4,000 e-mail addresses. All of the bar’s 8,000 members were affected in some way or another by Katrina, she adds, and the Web site generated “thousands of hits” during the time that the city was uninhabitable.

The Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Orleans bars also established business centers or Internet cafés in affected areas, giving displaced lawyers access to computers, telephones, and other business equipment.

An ABA Web site, www.abanet.org/katrina, is part of a comprehensive effort to gather manpower and money to assist all victims of the storms. It contains information for storm victims and families; for lawyers who need assistance themselves; for lawyers who wish to provide assistance; for military personnel who need legal help; and for law students, law schools, and paralegals. Its other offerings include links to state bar relief funds, and a message board—in collaboration with LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell—where displaced lawyers can post new contact information. By press time, the site had garnered about 55,000 visits.

The Atlanta Bar Association also established a hurricane help Web site, this one focused exclusively on assistance for lawyers and other members of the Gulf Coast legal community. “Our members just called like crazy to see what they could to help,” says Diane O’Steen, executive director of the Atlanta bar. “We didn’t know what to do right away, so we set up a Web site.”

The resulting site, www.attorneyassist.org, provides a wide range of information. Message boards provide offers of housing, employment, and other services, as well as links to various fundraising organizations. More than 5,700 people visited the site in about two-and-a-half months.

—R.J.D.

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