January 01, 2012

Disaster Response and Legal Technology

William Jones

Pro bono disaster legal services delivery begins by successfully connecting those with disaster-created legal issues to attorneys in the pool of volunteers. The technology that supports this connection needs to be accessible, reliable, efficient, and wherever possible, inexpensive. So, for many seeking pro bono disaster help, the standard technology tool of choice is the toll-free hotline, set up and managed by a district representative of the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD) under a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

When a disaster reaches a certain level to qualify for a hotline, the district representative will arrange for the toll-free hotline to be set up, usually with the state bar association. The calls are often fielded by state bar staff, but on some occasions a legal services affiliate or other volunteers will log requests for assistance using an Excel spreadsheet, an Access database, or even a local program’s case management system. These lists are then handed off to the district representative for matching needs with volunteers. Sometimes, volunteers will be asked to go on-site to the disaster recovery centers that FEMA and the Red Cross set up. For smaller disasters, the existing lists of volunteer attorneys the district representative already has (often in a spreadsheet or database table) may be sufficient for the matching process, which will usually be carried out through e-mail or phone requests. After a while, the same spreadsheets/tables are used to check back with volunteers about the outcome of each matter that they undertook.

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