Louisiana District Rep Named 2006 “Up and Coming Lawyer”
By Alexander P. Ryan
Alexander P. Ryan is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C.
Beth Abramson’s telephone rings a lot. She is, after all, a litigator in a busy New Orleans, Louisiana, law firm. A couple of years ago, however, Abramson’s phone was ringing constantly. That was in early September 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had just wrought havoc in New Orleans and throughout the state of Louisiana.
Abramson had just begun her two-year term as Louisiana’s district representative to the ABA Young Lawyers Division. As district rep, she was tasked with, among other projects, coordinating pro bono legal services in the event of a federally declared disaster. Louisiana had experienced disasters in the past. However, when Abramson signed on as district rep, she could not have known that the area’s worst-ever natural disaster awaited her.
As no one in Louisiana will ever forget, least of all Abramson, Hurricane Katrina struck the area on August 29, 2005. By contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the ABA YLD provides free civil legal services to low-income individuals affected by federally declared disasters. In Louisiana, in the pre-Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita era, the ABA YLD and FEMA partnered with the Louisiana State Bar Association when disasters struck. In typical situations, the President of the United States would declare a disaster, and the state’s ABA YLD district rep would move quickly to establish a “hotline,” where those affected by the disaster could turn for legal help. Per the agreement with FEMA, the ABA YLD district rep is tasked with determining where the hotline will be housed, who will work the hotline, and how the response will run. Generally, Louisiana’s hotline is run on a volunteer basis, by Louisiana attorneys who donate their time to assist those in need with answers to disaster-related legal questions.
This process is daunting enough in a typical disaster situation. But, when Hurricane Katrina hit, it was immediately clear that this was not a typical event. For one thing, New Orleans and much of the surrounding area was immediately put under an emergency evacuation order, forcing residents to relocate to escape the hurricane’s destruction. One of these residents was Beth Abramson, who resided in Orleans Parish. Setting up a disaster hotline is always difficult, because of the immediacy and urgency of the situations, but in this case, up against the worst disaster the area had ever known, Abramson was forced to relocate and do her work remotely.
Abramson wasted no time. As a commercial litigation associate with McGlinchey Stafford, she is adept at handling challenging tasks. Normally, the hotline would have been set up in the offices of the Louisiana State Bar Association, which partners with the ABA YLD and FEMA in these situations. Unfortunately, however, the LSBA was itself a New Orleans resident and was forced to evacuate. Therefore, Abramson had to adopt plan “B” for the hotline— Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Unable to work effectively in the New Orleans area and caught in the grip of nature’s wrath, Abramson and her team opted to relocate the hotline to the Baton Rouge Bar Association’s offices. With the BRBA’s help, Abramson and crew had the hotline up and running by September 1, just three days after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Securing the hotline was just one of Abramson’s many challenges in those first few days of September 2005. Another was finding enough attorneys to work the phones. The calls were coming quickly. The problem was, the attorneys who would normally volunteer to answer the phones were themselves affected by the hurricane. At the time, approximately 16,000 attorneys lived in Louisiana. Of these, nearly 15,000 would eventually be affected by Hurricane Katrina and, later, Hurricane Rita. Still, Abramson was able to solicit support from a group of local attorneys, largely through the assistance of local bar associations, pro bono organizations, and legal services corporations.
Abramson and her team caught a bit of a break in October 2005, when the hotline moved to Louisiana State University Law School, expanding the number of available incoming phone lines in the process. That was fortunate, because the calls continued—rapidly. Indeed, the demand got to the point that the Louisiana State Bar Association brought in paid attorneys in an attempt to handle the flow. Many of the calls involved issues relating to landlord/tenant questions. Some involved insurance and domestic matters. The callers were tired, worried, and wondered what to do next.
The disaster recovery efforts also benefited from several measures approved by the Louisiana Supreme Court. In October 2005, the court approved a temporary measure that permitted non-Louisiana-admitted attorneys to render pro bono legal assistance to the survivors of the hurricanes. The court approved a similar rule in January 2006. In January 2007, the court extended this rule, through January 19, 2008.
For all her efforts, Abramson was identified by Lawyers USA ( www.lawyersusaonline.com/upandcoming2006.cfm#abramson) as an “Up and Coming Lawyer of 2006.” Congratulations, Beth!