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Vol. 36, No. 3

In New Orleans, bar leaders learn about disaster planning, recovery

by Marilyn Cavicchia

In the city that was supposed to host the Midyear Meeting of the ABA and its affiliate groups in 2006 but missed its chance because of Hurricane Katrina, it was only fitting that disaster preparedness be the subject of the National Conference of Bar Presidents’ opening plenary program.

Katrina was an extreme case, but no one should believe that disasters are rare, or that they live in a disaster-free area, the panelists said. As of Midyear—in February—the Federal Emergency Management Association had already declared eight disasters across the United States in 2012, noted Kelly-Ann Clarke, a member of the ABA Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness. Statistically, she added, the state with the most disasters is not or one of the , but . When you factor in all the different kinds of unexpected events—everything from extreme weather to the sudden death of a partner—it’s clear that disaster preparedness is for everyone, no matter where you live.

Bar leaders in the areas affected by Katrina (and its follow-up, Rita) are now looked to as exemplars of effective disaster preparedness and response, but moderator Frank X. Neuner Jr. said that’s based on lessons that many of those bar leaders learned the hard way. Before the hurricanes, recalled Neuner, who was president of the Louisiana State Bar Association at the time of the storms in 2005, the bar had no disaster plan. “I think most bars were like that,” he added; now, both the LSBA and his law office have such a plan.

The panelists emphasized that while it’s admirable to be able to think on your feet and respond well during a disaster, the real key is to make a solid plan when you’re not in a crisis. Jonathan Cole, a member of the NCBP Executive Council and the president of the Nashville Bar Association at the time of that city’s major flood in 2010, noted that during a disaster, there’s no time to hold a meeting to discuss what to do.

“You have to be thinking about this before it happens,” agreed Laura Calloway, director of service programs and practice management assistance programs at the Alabama State Bar; in April 2011, that state was hit with devastating tornadoes.

Indeed, while disaster response, planning, and preparedness are widely used terms, there’s another way to think about the kind of work that needs to be done. “The most important thing for a bar association is to have a business continuity plan,” Clarke said.

Bar associations should think in terms of how to protect staff, minimize the adverse effects of whatever the disaster is, help members, help the public, and maintain discipline and regulatory systems, all with as little interruption as possible, Clarke explained.

Disaster stories

The panelists shared some stories of the disasters they’ve survived, and what they learned that would be applicable for other bar leaders.

Clarke is from Galveston, Texas. When Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, she was displaced from her office for six weeks. During that time, she shared a work space with other displaced lawyers, who sat on folding chairs, three to a desk.

Not only couldn’t Clarke use her office, but she couldn’t get home, either. The timing of the storm, which reached Galveston on September 13, added another impediment: Payday for her firm was on the 15th. The firm mailed her pay stub to her house, but she wasn’t there—and the Galveston post office “didn’t exist, for six weeks.” Fortunately, she had direct deposit, and the deposit went through—but Clarke advised law firms and bar associations to think about how their employees, especially those who get paper checks, will receive their pay if disaster strikes around the time of payday.

“I’ll never forget how it feels, to feel so lost,” she said. The personal toll on many lawyers was enormous, she said; a partner at her firm killed himself during the aftermath of the storm. In a way, she noted, his death was another disaster—not only because it was emotionally wrenching, but also because the firm had to carry on without him, and he had kept all his files to himself.

The Texas bar was a great help after Hurricane Ike, Clarke recalled, but the local bar was itself knocked out by the storm. The law library, which is where the executive director worked, was on the first floor of
the local courthouse, Clarke said, and its documents were soaked or destroyed.

The water reached 11 feet in many areas, she said, and paper files from various businesses—including law offices—were floating down the street.

Last August, the third of Hurricane Irene’s three landfalls along the East Coast brought Vermont some of the worst flooding it had seen in centuries. That was on a Sunday; by Tuesday, panelist Bob Paolini, executive director of the Vermont Bar Association, was back in the office. He sent an email to all members, asking if they needed anything. Time after time, he said, the response was that the member was fine, his or her town was fine—and the member was grateful to have been asked, and proud to belong to the bar.

With members accounted for, Paolini began to recruit volunteers to assist flood victims with legal needs. From a 2,100-member bar, he said, he was able to recruit 122 volunteers from Tuesday to Saturday.

“A disaster is a good way to show the value of the bar,” said Cole, noting that both the Nashville and Tennessee bar associations responded well to the flood there, which was the result of 22 inches of rain falling within two days.

Part of the TBA’s plan, he said, was an arrangement with the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services to offer each other work space if one of them were displaced. TALS was displaced and worked out of the TBA offices.

Meanwhile, Cole’s firm was shut down for a week, and he worked from the NBA headquarters, both to keep up with his caseload and also to promote flood services and resources.

Backing up all your files is a great step, he noted, but it’s important to be thorough. Have both electronic and hard copies, both at home and at work, he advised, because you never know which place you’ll have access to and what technology will be available.

A technology inventory

Speaking of technology, Calloway said that whether at a bar association or a law office, one key planning step is to do an inventory of all hardware and software, including license information and product keys used to access the tools. This used to involve disks, Calloway noted, but now most offices keep this information on a server. There’s even downloadable software, she added, that will tell you all the software you have and how to access it.

Anything you have in hard copy, you should also digitize, she said, adding that you might also consider putting it in the cloud. Many Louisiana lawyers had backed up their files and taken the backup disk home, she explained—only to lose both home and office. If your data are in the cloud, she said, “You can make a phone call and be back up in a couple of hours.”

Another thing to consider in the realm of technology is how best to use it to get through to members who have been displaced. Out of 16,000 in-state lawyers in Louisiana at the time of Katrina, Neuner said, 8,979 of them were displaced from both home and office for a month or more.

“Think about the technology your younger members use,” Calloway advised, noting that text messages might go through at times when phone calls won’t, and that Twitter could be another great way to get the word out.

Technology can also be used to cause a disaster, in terms of misuse of your systems and data, she said; don’t forget to maintain good, strong firewalls and virus protection to prevent this type of manmade crisis.

How bars help

Through a contract with FEMA, Clarke said, the ABA Young Lawyers Division has a disaster-trained representative assigned to each state (in some cases, two states share one rep) and sets up a hotline through the state bar. It’s important to know who your rep is, Cole said—and to find this out before a disaster strikes. Neuner noted that the system isn’t foolproof; the rep for Louisiana was missing for 10 days after Katrina.

In Texas, Clarke said, the state bar typically begins its outreach before FEMA activates Disaster Legal Services via the ABA YLD. Clarke added that she was a YLD rep for the state of during Katrina and was called on to help provide legal assistance for the residents who had been evacuated to that state.

Often, the panelists said, one key role for the state or local bar is to convey information about the status of the courts. During the Nashville flood and its aftermath, Cole said, the court closed and no one knew when it would be open again. The judges wouldn’t talk to individual lawyers—but would talk to the bar. The NBA emailed a flood update—daily at first, then tapering off. “Members loved it,” Cole noted. Meanwhile, he added, the TBA used its popular “TBA Today” e-newsletter to get the word out regarding its flood relief efforts.

Not many lawyers took the NBA up on an offer of temporary office space, Cole said, but they appreciated that the offer was there.

A couple of courts in were closed for a week after the flood there,  Paolini said, and the state bar was asked to keep lawyers up to date. Paolini was  also asked by the state senate’s president pro tempore to be chair of the Irene Property Law Task Force. This group met four times, starting soon after the hurricane, Paolini said, and produced a 250-page report with information and recommendations for storm recovery. In January, he added, the lieutenant governor convened the state senate as a committee of the whole in order to take testimony from the task force.

Bar associations often step in to help each other during a disaster, the panelists and moderator noted. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Neuner said, the State Bar of Texas sent five staff members to help get the LSBA’s website up and running again. John Sirman, the Texas bar’s Web manager, also created an interactive service to help lawyers and clients find each other.

Vermont was in less need of direct assistance from out of state, but Paolini noted that the offers were there. The president of the Rhode Island Bar Association said there was a contingent available from that bar, and the Connecticut Bar Association said it could help in any way it was needed. David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, sent a copy of his bar’s disaster manual, which Paolini found helpful.

With careful planning, an effective response, and assistance from colleagues at other bar associations, Cole believes, “A disaster may be the best opportunity to make a real difference for members.”


(For the handout from this session, and links to additional resources, visit