Successfully Implementing Disaster Legal Services

Volume 37, Number 5


Susan L. Tiedemann is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate, an ABA YLD Scholar, and practices law in Washington, D.C.


The ABA YLD runs a federal Disaster Legal Services (DLS) program under a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). DLS provides free legal assistance to survivors of presidentially declared major disasters when FEMA determines that those survivors would benefit from pro bono legal services. District Representatives appointed by ABA YLD affiliates implement DLS in each jurisdiction. Attorneys interested in volunteering for DLS in their local area should contact their District Representative to be added to a list in the event a disaster strikes. This article profiles three states that have successfully implemented DLS so that other jurisdictions setting out to do the same might gain some tips, ideas, and general guidance.

New York

In New York, to initiate DLS, (1) the governor must request federal assistance; (2) the President must declare a disaster in the area; and (3) a District Representative must obtain a letter from FEMA. On September 13, 2011, the President declared the State of New York a major disaster area because of Tropical Storm Lee, which hit New York on September 7, 2011, right on the heels of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene that struck New York at the end of August. In response, two DLS programs were implemented concurrently on September 21, 2011.

Attorneys who led the DLS implementation efforts in New York include Alena Shautsova, New York District Representative; Timothy Fennel, Member-at-Large of the New York State Bar Association’s (NYSBA) Executive Committee; Eva Valentin-Espinal, Coordinator, Lawyer Referral and Information Service; and James Barnes, Chair of the NYSBA Young Lawyers Section (YLS). While waiting for the green light from FEMA to implement DLS, they made calls to FEMA and the ABA in an attempt to speed up the process. Even before the formal implementation of DLS, young lawyers in Albany and Green Counties had begun helping survivors.

Volunteers and an 800 number provided by the NYSBA Lawyers Referral Services were ready to go right after the hurricanes, enabling New York to start DLS within hours of receiving the September 21, 2011, letter from FEMA. Volunteers were recruited thanks to Eva’s efforts, advertising by local bar associations, and young lawyers contacting Alena directly by finding her information on the ABA pro bono website. They attracted volunteers from different areas of law, many of whom were young attorneys.

Per Alena, New York closed DLS three months later in late December 2011 “because the volume of calls and requests decreased dramatically and the need for the DLS basically was exhausted.” Though the contract with FEMA allowed New York to file for up to $5,000 in reimbursement expenses, the New York State Bar Association absorbed all costs and did not seek reimbursement.

North Dakota

DLS was implemented at the beginning of July 2011 in response to severe flooding of the Souris and Missouri Rivers, and it was active through the end of January. With help from North Dakota (and South Dakota) District Representative Kara Johnson, the State Bar Association of North Dakota Young Lawyers Section (SBAND YLS) Board led the DLS implementation efforts, along with YLS President Erica Shively and Secretary Samantha Miller. They advertised for assistance by sending out blast e-mails to the YLS. According to Kara, they also “found a couple of mentor-type volunteers who were specialists in particular areas,” such as handling “FHA mortgages and foreclosures, by reaching out to them personally and asking for assistance.” They even held a conference call joined by several FEMA officials during which one such mentor answered questions about mortgage issues.

Kara attributes the success of DLS in North Dakota to “advanced preparation.” Kara, the YLS, the State Bar Executive, and the Director of Legal Services all began having conference calls to plan DLS before receiving their FEMA letter. Kara said that “everyone involved had decided there would be a state run version if nothing was declared by FEMA.”

Approximately 25 volunteers and four people from Legal Services of North Dakota handled the 199 DLS cases. Legal Services of North Dakota played a key role by staffing the hotline and doing all the intake for DLS. Kara remarked that the “DLS program’s success in North Dakota was largely due to the wonderful cooperation and communication that took place between Legal Services of North Dakota and the SBAND YLS.”

Kara explained that North Dakota DLS was unique in that “the SBAND YLS decided to help everyone affected by the flooding who called in and requested legal services” regardless of their income levels.


On September 4, 2011, the day after wildfires broke out in Bastrop County, Texas, the Central Texas Wildfire Legal Response Team was formed, through the initiative of Austin Bar Association President David Chamberlain. Chaired by Austin attorneys David Courreges, Karin Crump, and Amy Welborn, the Team met for the first time on September 5 to plan the implementation of DLS. The team was assisted by Texas District Representative Anita Barksdale, who played an instrumental role in assisting with DLS implementation.

Per the Team’s Final Report, “By the morning of September 6—less than 48 hours after the fires began—the first two free legal advice clinics in Bastrop were opened” at state-run evacuee shelters. By September 7, all five shelters had clinics. The Team spread word of the clinics via direct contact, traditional media, bar websites, social media, and an announcement by Senator Kirk Watson at the Fire Command Center news conference. When the shelters began to close, the clinics relocated to Bastrop City Hall, the courthouse, the donation distribution center, and an area where insurance companies set up their mobile claims centers. When the FEMA clinic opened on September 15, the auxiliary clinics, which had already helped over 400 families, were phased out and their volunteers were placed at the FEMA location.

The Team also created a PowerPoint presentation to recruit and educate volunteers, produced public service announcements with information for disaster survivors, edited and expanded a Volunteer Attorney Disaster Training Manual, conducted a Volunteer Attorney Training CLE, instituted a food and clothing drive, and held a volunteer appreciation reception. According to the Final Report, “over 100 Central Texas area attorneys have volunteered through the Disaster Response Team, assisting an estimated 900 families in the process.” In November the Team was renamed “The Special Projects Committee,” but it continues to carry out its original mission under the direction of its original co-chairs. The Committee will also take on other projects of an emergency or unforeseen nature.

For More Information

If your organization would like information about implementing DLS in your area, please visit, where you can find contact information for the DLS Director as well as a comprehensive Disaster Legal Services Training Manual.


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