September 28, 2018

Celebrate Pro Bono by Helping Those Affected by Disasters

Jessica Penkoff and Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz

This month, the ABA is celebrating pro bono work with a special focus: disaster resiliency. In 2017, FEMA declared 137 disasters, and millions of people are still in recovery. This year, FEMA has declared nearly 90 disasters. With the Atlantic hurricane season in full swing and Hurricane Florence recently hitting the southeast, disaster legal aid remains a critical need for many.

Low-income families are likely to lack the financial resources to prepare for or respond to a disaster, and are likely to live in areas that are highly susceptible to floods. In light of this, many advocates mobilized to help low-income disaster survivors with FEMA applications, appeals, and other legal issues in the aftermath of the 2017 disasters. Attorneys staffed disaster legal response centers and hotlines. Law students assisted local legal aid and nonprofit groups in disaster areas. Experienced attorneys provided training for those who were new to disaster legal aid. All of these efforts were invaluable, however there is an ongoing need for increased and continued pro bono involvement in disaster legal aid.

For attorneys and law students new to pro bono work, the concept of “disaster law” can be nebulous and overwhelming. The good news is: 1) “disaster law” encompasses multiple practice areas that you are likely already familiar with, 2) there is a robust disaster legal aid community ready to support your work and provide training resources, and 3) pro bono assistance to disaster survivors can be, and often is, limited or brief. Multiple legal issues can be implicated in the aftermath of a disaster. Attorneys and law students can find their niche in disaster legal aid in any of the following areas (and more): insurance disputes, contract disputes/negotiation, consumer debt issues, housing issues, and federal or local assistance applications and appeals.

Often, what disaster survivors need primarily is for someone to help them through the process of obtaining post-disaster government assistance. Survivors often experience enduring trauma, which makes it very difficult for them to tend to bureaucratic matters, not to mention the fact that obtaining government benefits often requires the production of documentation that was likely physically destroyed during the disaster. As a young attorney, you are well-equipped to help these individuals fill out paperwork, answer questions, and find ways to substitute documentation. Your problem-solving skills are invaluable.

Young attorneys and law students can help disaster survivors regardless of whether or not they have studied or practiced in any of these areas. Seek trainings and resources through your local legal aid/bar associations and national sites, such as the ABA, LSC, and Talk to someone at your firm/law school that has experience in this area to learn more. Join the Disaster Legal Aid 2018 roundtable series to learn from experts. To find pro bono opportunities, law students should ask their public interest center or clinical program about existing opportunities, or talk with your professors and fellow students about developing a clinical program. Law firm associates should talk to the pro bono coordinator/staff at your firm about opportunities in disaster legal aid. Both attorneys and law students should also contact their local bar associations. Finally, search the Opportunities Guide to find organizations in your area that serve disaster survivors.

While we cannot predict the next disaster, we can prepare to serve those affected by it.

Take advantage of the resources and networks available in your community. Be confident that present and future disaster survivors need you, and you are well-poised to assist. Together, we can provide disaster survivors with the legal assistance they so desperately need.


Jessica Penkoff and Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz

Jessica Penkoff is the pro bono and strategic initiatives coordinator and Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz is the disaster response legal fellow at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to the delivery of innovative tech solutions and network collaboration to help close the justice gap.