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After the Bar

Public Service

Develop Your Legal Skills by Supporting Disaster Survivors

Stephanie Duke


  • Disaster attorneys handle various legal issues arising from disasters, providing assistance in personal injury claims, housing benefits, employment disputes, property rights, and more.
  • Access to free legal services is crucial for vulnerable communities affected by disasters, addressing social inequities.
  • There is an expanding need for legal support in the face of increasing disasters and for legal professionals to contribute to disaster relief efforts.
Develop Your Legal Skills by Supporting Disaster Survivors

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Two words: “disaster” and “attorney,” said consecutively, conjure up what image or mental associations for you? Alternatively, if a non-legally trained individual asked you, as a legal professional, what a disaster attorney practices, what would your response be?

If you had asked me the same question during law school or after graduation, my responses would have ranged from, “Yep, I got nothing.” “Is there such a thing?” “What substantive area of law is that even in?” “Did I miss that on the board certification list?” “And what exactly do they do?”

These two words expressed together have no nexus and fall amid an ambiguous abyss of semantics, as many of us have no association between the two words. Now, distinguish that void from what conceptual associations the single word “disaster” invokes. Do you see remnants of homes destroyed in wildfires or roofs covered with blue tarps because of the destruction endured in a hurricane, or cars with flashing lights submerged in floodwaters? What about mass care shelters with a gridiron of cots, individuals standing in a single-file line wearing masks awaiting some uncertainty, or search and rescues being conducted to save people’s lives?

What Do Disaster Attorneys Do?

Well, those images are a direct correlation to what disaster attorneys do. I can definitively say, yes, disaster attorneys are such a thing, and they practice within a wide range of substantive legal issues. Some disaster attorneys may handle tort claims focusing on personal injury caused by the disaster or event. Still, disaster legal services or pro bono attorneys assisting with disaster relief provide free legal services to individuals who otherwise would not have access to civil legal services and focus on civil issues arising from a disaster or emergency.

Vulnerable Communities Need Access to Free Legal Services

Accessibility to free legal services is essential to address the needs of marginalized and vulnerable communities. Wealth status is one variable among various demographics or immutable characteristics contributing to the social inequities and disparities already experienced. Unfortunately, a disaster or emergency does not differentiate among classes or demographics. More accurately, it is the injustices already in play, which are exacerbated and come to fruition, as seen in the tragic impact and lack of resiliency within these communities.

Examples of Legal Emergencies That Occur Post-Disaster

In a disaster or emergency, survivors may encounter legal issues in the response or recovery phases of the event or throughout both. Such problems may include:

  • addressing contract claims with an insurance provider or entities providing reconstruction and rehabilitation of residences,
  • accessing housing benefits for unmet needs to ensure housing stability,
  • contesting employment benefits or unemployment related to a disaster,
  • solidifying property rights if residence damaged or obligations to tenants displaced by a disaster,
  • resolving probate issues to provide clear title,
  • ensuring continued educational programming,
  • safeguarding consumer protections,
  • navigating administrative and procedural claims with the SBA, FEMA, and HUD CDBG-DR grantees; and
  • addressing inequities in health care and emergency services.

Substantive Legal Issues Flourish Post-Disaster

The potential for exposure to substantive legal issues is expansive because of the intersectionality between the event itself and legal causes of action. Nevertheless, while it is imperative to amass substantive knowledge about disaster frameworks, potential private rights of action across the rule of law, or the obligations of the government, the ability to work with and support disaster survivors is invaluable. The capacity to efficiently identify the pertinent facts, applicable law, and legal strategies provide the foundation to work the case. Still, the interaction with clients affords the humility to appreciate and comprehend the totality of the case.

Develop Your Legal Skills

During the pandemic, many soon-to-be licensed attorneys were denied or delayed  employment opportunities because of economics or licensure uncertainty. However, offering your specific skill set can help those organizing and supporting disaster relief services and is advantageous to developing or enhancing your legal skills.

Regrettably, disasters and emergencies are increasing annually in both frequency and severity. Now we must face not only concurrent disasters but also concurrent disasters among ongoing, long-term recovery efforts and continued public health emergencies. Thus, the importance of sustaining disaster relief and legal resources to support those in need. By assisting with disaster relief efforts, you support disaster survivors and maintain the accessibility of legal services. Contact your local or state bar associations to inquire about helping with disaster relief efforts.

Watch a non-CLE free webinar replay that takes you through the step-by-step process of what triggers the Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program, how the program is implemented, and what that looks like on the back-end. The speakers also take a closer look at the current federal restrictions on the DLS program in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and discuss how states can implement their own state-wide COVID-19 hotline. 

The Disaster Legal Services Program of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division (YLD) exists to respond to the unmet legal needs that arise after natural disasters. Through a partnership with FEMA, the YLD provides disaster legal services to low-income disaster survivors following a presidentially declared “major disaster” as defined in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.