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After the Bar

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If You're Reading This, It's Too Late

Andrew Jack VanSingel

If You're Reading This, It's Too Late
Branimir76 via Getty Images

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The YLD Disaster Legal Services Program and Paladin have launched the first national disaster relief pro bono portal. This free centralized, sortable database will list opportunities to serve those impacted by COVID-19 and other natural disasters. Visit the portal to volunteer your services

No, this is not a five-year-past-due review of Drake’s second-best album bearing the same name. While the country has been grappling with ways to combat COVID-19, we quickly learned that COVID-19 challenged everything we thought we knew about preparedness and disaster response and recovery.

Legal issues arising from a natural disaster are typically predictable in subject matter and are geographically isolated. However, a pandemic increases the size, scope, and scale of legal issues and raises unique legal questions. For example, how do we address urgent legal needs if the courts are closed, or how do we address the increase in domestic violence arising from shelter-in-place orders? Before we get into the legal issues, a more basic question persists: Are you equipped to work through a disaster or pandemic? Below are three things you can do now to avoid a crisis during the next major disaster/toilet paper shortage. 

Sniff Around

Preparedness is a shared responsibility and requires everyone’s involvement. Start by talking to those who are similarly situated as you are (e.g., practice setting, firm size, geographic location, and risk factors). Ask what your community is doing to be more resilient. Ask about lessons learned. Branch out to other strategic partners. What is legal aid doing to prepare? How will the courts respond to a disaster? These are the first questions you should ask during blue skies and the last questions you want to ask during a disaster. For general preparedness resources, check out Ready.govFEMA, and the American Red Cross.

A Plan Is Useless, but Planning Is Essential

President Eisenhower is credited with the prior statement. Although he was speaking about wartime preparations, it rings true in disaster preparedness. After learning more about your community and how resilient it is (or isn’t), work on developing a plan of action. This may seem daunting. Lucky for you, the ABA has a library of free planning tools located on the Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness website as well as the ABA Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic website.

Disasters tend to be unexpected and unfold in ways that we cannot always anticipate. For example, both Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey significantly weakened before they were supposed to make landfall (but quickly intensified), which may have downplayed the perceived risk to those located in the Gulf Coast. Similarly, early in the COVID-19 saga, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that the risk of COVID-19 in the United States was “just minuscule,” but the situation escalated quickly. Think about all the what-if scenarios. While your plan may prove to be far from perfect and subject to improvisation, exploring options and contingencies lends itself to valuable insights that are crucial if disaster strikes.

This Is [Hopefully] Just a Test

Frequently test your plan and under different scenarios. Simulate scenarios that may reasonably happen. Think of your work in terms of processes and what things support those processes. Treat them like links in a chain. Remove links from that chain (e.g., try working remotely, without a printer, copier, or internet). Document your experience. Identify key processes that are compromised when routine things (e.g., power, cell service, or the freedom to freely move around) are impacted.

Notice that different scenarios affect your practice differently. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many brick-and-mortar law firms to embrace technology and make their practices entirely remote. However, a hurricane may compromise power, the internet, or cellular service. Overreliance on virtual or cloud processes versus in-person or tangible systems can be detrimental. Your plan will need to adapt to the risk factors that can be reasonably expected. After testing your plan, repeat it. Share your experiences with your colleagues and continually improve your plan.

Time will tell how this article holds up. If you’re reading this later in the year, chances are that we made it out of this COVID-19 mess, and we finally can stop saying “the new normal.” It is also entirely possible that we are living in a post-apocalyptic world, fighting for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I’m hoping we came out in the win column on this one and that we reflect and acknowledge how we can become a more resilient community. And because it can’t be said enough—thank you to all of the medical professionals, including my mother, who is a nurse case manager, whose work during this time should never be forgotten. 

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.

Watch a non-CLE free webinar replay that will take 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 will 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.