Disaster Response and Legal Technology

Vol. 29 No. 1


William Jones is the Technology, Information, and Content Coordinator for the American Bar Association’s Center for Pro Bono.


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.

As part of their duties, the district representative may also distribute brochures/notices about the disaster hotline and volunteer contact information to various state organizations through mailings, e-mails, and public service announcements on television and radio. Now, with social media available, there are new channels to communicate the hotline number’s existence and to recruit volunteers. For example, a video can be created on YouTube and placed on multiple websites, including those belonging to bar associations and law firms; or a Facebook page can be created to focus on the disaster and the response to it (Facebook already has pages/groups focused on Hurricane Irene); or blogs and even tweets can be used to disseminate information and pull in volunteers.

If the volunteer pool of attorneys is too small to cover the current disaster, the district representative might contact local law firms for volunteers or request the state bar to publicize a call for volunteers on its website or through its e-mail distribution lists—often the state bar also sets up an online form to field volunteer information. On some occasions the district representative sends assistants to local bar meetings to make an in-person appeal for volunteers. Larger disasters will probably see the district representative sharing the matching of pro bono volunteers with third parties, particularly legal services affiliates or non–Legal Services Corporation organizations. A YLD hotline remains active until requests drop; because of the use of volunteers and the fact that FEMA usually funds about $5,000 of the cost of these hotlines, the expense is reasonable.

The YLD hotline has been a solid model for many years of linking people in need to pro bono help. But the hotline operation does not exhaust disaster legal services delivery. For example, the Austin Bar Association posts a free wildfire response seminar to quickly train people and uses a very casual blog posting to present possible volunteers with an opportunity to do pro bono work at a clinic—the blog lists the place and time slots available and requests that volunteers select a time and notify the clinic contact person by e-mail. Pennsylvania is using a listserve to distribute possible cases to volunteers—they choose the cases they want and connect to the client by e-mail. The law firm Morrison Foerster, sometimes in conjunction with local bar associations, has developed several useful “Helping Handbooks” on disasters, available on the firm website, covering flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires.

The ABA and Pro Bono Net have created the National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide to offer state-by-state volunteer opportunities. If you want to do pro bono in a disaster, you can directly contact the YLD District Representative by going to this website and looking for the “ABA/FEMA Disaster Legal Assistance Program” listing for your state. (It’s usually the second item listed. Some states do not participate in the guide; if this is your case, please contact the ABA Young Lawyers Division, for contact information.) Of course, once you have located your state’s listing, it is also convenient to find local programs that may be doing disaster relief operations—volunteering is very easy because the pro bono contact for organizations is clearly indicated.

To deal with government relief is to deal with forms. FEMA has recently developed a website to make it easier for disaster survivors to both access disaster information and to apply for government disaster benefits. The site allows individuals to register in either English or Spanish for assistance from 17 government agencies. Users can fill out a questionnaire to identify which government benefits might be accessible to them. Users then fill out one form with their personal information and specifics; this information is stored and will be used to pre-populate any additional forms that users will want to send in later. Users can track the progress of their applications online.

Each state also has at least one website providing citizens with legal information and access to document assembly forms and resources for disaster relief (a list may be found at www.lawhelp.org). Pro Bono Net runs the LawHelp Interactive project (LHI), which helps state legal groups create useful document-assembly interviews. Through a disaster’s timeline there is usually a need for assistance in the following legal areas: consumer, family, housing, public benefits, and wills. It is likely that in a particular disaster, useful LHI online forms will be available through a state website.

Pro Bono Net pioneered the use of LiveHelp operators in the delivery of legal assistance. LiveHelp is a service tied into a website. If the website visitors desire assistance, they click the LiveHelp button, which initiates an online chat session with an operator. The operator can provide legal information and navigate visitors to the appropriate section of the website that addresses their need (there is also an option to have a phone conversation with the operator if that is more comfortable for visitors). LiveHelp operators do not need to be located in the state—it’s possible for volunteers to be on the other side of the country and still help someone. LiveHelp is mostly utilized to share information and to assist in navigation, but it can be used to deliver disaster help. In 2008, after Hurricane Ike, LiveHelp was used at the Texas Law Help website to connect volunteer attorneys to disaster survivors. The Houston Bar Association and other organizations trained more than 200 lawyers to deliver legal services through LiveHelp. At the moment, there are 13 states that have LiveHelp chat capabilities (and at least two others that use other chat systems) that could be part of a disaster response service.

Thanks to technology, attorneys are very mobile. For instance, New York Legal Assistance Group has a Mobile Legal Help Center, and Georgia Legal Services Program and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society have Mobile Law Units. Through these programs, attorneys can go out to libraries and senior centers to deliver services. In some case mobile lawyers literally go out into “the field” to support rural farm workers with a laptop, printer, and wireless hot spot. The hot spot allows connection to web-based resources, case management systems, and other online tools. A good example of this mobility can be found in the group of attorneys who are doing pro bono work for tornado survivors in Joplin, Missouri. This is the work of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA), which has a memorandum of understanding with the Red Cross to help staff disaster recovery centers. The Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) are drawn from about 120 volunteers who have been trained using a free on-demand CLE training located at the MATA website. When the Red Cross disaster center was active in Joplin, the ERT set up a hot spot for their laptops, iPads, and printers, connecting to their program and other websites to deliver legal assistance. Even after the Red Cross center closed, MATA has made repeated trips to Joplin with the same equipment and, between visits, has continued to render legal assistance through phone calls with disaster survivors.

Finally, the National Disaster Legal Aid website is a collaborative effort of the ABA, the Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and Pro Bono Net. Based on the earlier Katrina Legal Aid Resource Center (see sidebar below), the National Disaster Legal Aid site is a centralized online resource for disaster legal help with the most recent hotline information, news updates, and resources to assist and recruit legal aid and pro bono attorneys. The ABA has also developed its own disaster resource portal to gather and organize the content from the numerous ABA subgroups that undertake disaster relief.


Katrina and the ABA

Hurricane Katrina was a mega-disaster in terms of the number of people affected and the severe damage to property and infrastructure. An extra complication was that many evacuees moved to other states. The impact on the legal community was severe. A large number of attorneys lost their homes and offices, court infrastructure was battered, and court records were destroyed. It was clear that outside assistance was going to be needed, and the American Bar Association began to focus its resources to help. ABA leadership and staff were in continuous phone conferences with FEMA, the Red Cross, the Legal Services Corporation, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, as well as state contacts including the state judiciary, state pro bono coordinators, and legal services program directors.

The ABA YLD-FEMA hotlines were quickly deployed: In the first six to eight weeks after the storm, these hotlines assisted roughly 4,200 people in Louisiana, 4,000 in Mississippi, 2,400 in Texas, and 45 in Alabama. At the same time, several ABA entities were gathering information from their members and soliciting documents, manuals, and other resources for the ABA Hurricane Katrina web pages. A working group of some 30 ABA staff members, led by the ABA webmaster, began development of the ABA Katrina Portal. The web portal pages alone averaged 39,000 visits per month throughout the first six months of the disaster. The ABA, in partnership with Pro Bono Net, the Legal Services Corporation, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, pooled resources and staff time to set up the Katrina Legal Aid Resource Center, a website devoted to news and information about the disaster and featuring a storehouse of resource documents, manuals, and information for volunteers.

The ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service and its Center for Pro Bono, already hearing from attorneys throughout the country who wanted to help, knew that volunteer lawyers were going to have a role to play. An online Zoomerang survey was set up to solicit pro bono volunteers and identify whether the volunteers’ areas of practice matched the 19 types most likely to be needed, which states they were licensed to practice in, and their willingness to travel (if necessary) to help Katrina victims. The link to this survey was placed on both the ABA Katrina Portal and the Katrina Legal Aid Resource Center website. Data was frequently downloaded from the survey and loaded to an Access database to allow easy extraction of subsets of data for various reports. The Center for Pro Bono’s first request for help from the disaster area was for a specialist in animal law—the ABA was able to provide two of them from the volunteer list.

Within the first two months the ABA had more than 1,700 volunteers from every state; more than 1,000 of them (58 percent) were willing to travel to the disaster site to do pro bono assistance. On a weekly basis the Center for Pro Bono sent out Excel spreadsheets that offered tailored lists of available volunteers to pro bono coordinators in the affected states, as well as to states that had substantial groups of evacuees, such as California, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. Special lists of practitioners were pulled for requesting organizations in these areas: bankruptcy, child welfare, consumer/finance, criminal law, employment, housing, insurance, labor, military law, real estate, and taxation. The Center for Pro Bono also created a listserve to communicate with the volunteers and used their submission data for follow-up surveys—for example, asking about their proficiency in various languages.

The awareness that large numbers of out-of-state pro bono volunteers might be called to deliver pro bono assistance in a disaster has led the ABA to develop the Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster (known simply as the “Katrina Rule”), which has been adopted by 13 states and is being considered by another 16.



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