March 2014

My work on disaster legal services at Pro Bono Net has made me keenly aware of the barriers to access to justice that many Americans encounter. I’ve also become cognizant of the vast regional and jurisdictional differences in how courts accommodate participation by non-lawyers in the civil legal system. So when Mark O’Brien invited me to the launch of the Justice Index at Cardozo Law School on February 25th, I was equal parts curious and skeptical – could you really apply a uniform standard to measure civil access to justice in the United States? Long story short: the Index is an important tool for promoting understanding about the many different factors that affect how individuals experience access to justice and for measuring the progress that states are making to improve access. But it’s a work in progress, and I also feel it is missing a key measure of innovation in state law.

Cardozo Law School hosts the National Center for Access to Justice and was the site of the Justice Index launch

The presentation at Cardozo featured representatives of the organizations that collaborated on the creation of the Index: David Udell and Jamie Gamble of the National Center for Access to Justice, Ellen Rosenthal of the Pfizer Legal Alliance (who marshaled the efforts of Pfizer’s law firms to undertake exhaustive state-by-state research), Mondi Basmenji of Skadden Arps (who spearheaded her firm’s efforts), and Jeremy Perisho of Deloitte (which analyzed the raw data and developed the algorithms and visualization strategy to make sense of more the individual data points that make up each state’s score.) The Index measures state performance against four factors that define the daily experience of litigants in the justice system: the Ratio of Legal Aid Lawyers to State Poverty Population; Help Available for Self-Represented Litigants; Support for Litigants with Limited English Proficiency; and Support for People with Disabilities. The first category is a numeric count, whereas the latter three are calculated based upon the presence or lack of identified laws, rules, and formal policies in place. The four categories are then given equal weight in a composite index.

Two questions asked during a lively Q&A session that followed the presentation really stood out: how did the developers of the Index compare fundamentally different measures across states? And to what extend can the findings be interpreted? In answering the first question, David Udell acknowledged that, in order to ensure consistency, the Justice Index team could only evaluate whether states had rules in place to promote access and not assess how well states are doing to enforce (or to fund) implementation of identified standards. The Index, then, is still a measure of rules rather than the lived experience of access to justice. But Udell is (rightly, I think) hopeful that advocates will be able to use the Index to start a discussion about how to better measure progress in improving the availability of access to civil justice.

In answering the second question, Mr. Udell noted that among the key findings was that in many cases neighboring states, which spent similar amounts on civil legal services, performed very differently on the Index. Instead of looking at the Index as a way of comparing the composite scores of the 50 states, he said, advocates could look at how neighboring states fared as an indicator of innovations in state laws. Advocates can see the Index as establishing a road map for promoting reform in their states.

Ultimately, Mr. Udell said it best when he noted the development of the initial Justice Index is a first run at creating a resource that can be a force for change. He hopes that leaders in the access to justice community view the Index as an impetus for important conversations about what should be measured and how respective measurements should be valued.

Like the developers, I am hopeful that the Index will provoke a serious conversation about what individual states can do to improve access to justice, and that this conversation will lead to improved measures in future releases. Based on my exposure to the civil legal system here at Pro Bono Net, I wonder if the Index should place more weight on the relative number of lawyers and overall resources available to support access for people in poverty (even if performance on that measure is poor across the board).

I also agreed with Mark O’Brien’s observation that the Index needs to incorporate innovations in practice rather than simply the presence of rules. Possible indicators of innovation could include support for the types of pilot programs that Chief Judge Lippman has announced here in New York (to provide trained volunteer non-lawyers as “navigators” to assist self-represented litigants in court), or expenditures on technological innovation in the delivery of legal services. The Index may better encourage innovation if it rewards courts for taking risks, not just for making rules.

Together with many of my colleagues at Pro Bono Net I am very excited by the arrival of the Justice Index. (Aside from everything else, it is an elegant and attractive demonstration of what a difference effective data visualization can make in parsing complex information!) The Index makes clear to the public what many attorneys and advocates have long known – the civil legal system is broken and fails to serve those most in need. More positively, it highlights where and how progress is being made, so that others can replicate and expand on successful practices.

Shirt and Laynard
My official shirt & laynard

On March 6, the Kapor Center for Social Impact hosted the first Latin@s in Tech Conference as a pre-conference to the SXSW in Austin, Texas. I was excited to be invited to the inaugural conference that brought together some of the most accomplished Latino/a tech leaders in the country. The expertise in the room was astounding, ranging from software programmers and designers to social entrepreneurs to social justice activist to investors. The conference provided a platform for Latinos to engage in dialogue about the existing gap of Latinos presence in the technology sphere and in conferences like SXSW Interactive.

The one-day conference kicked off with a panel led by Maria Hinojosa, lead anchor and executive producer of her show Latino USA on NPR, and Ben Jealous, former President and CEO of the NAACP and now Venture Partner at the Kapor Center. The conversation quickly dove into the importance of Latino presence and representation in the technology and media fields. With structural barriers, such as access to wealth and educational opportunities, presenting a challenge for Latinos, and other minority groups, it is clear that now is the time to own the issue and together be proactive in creating change.

The conference hosted a number of workshops on topics including social entrepreneurship, investing, social justice, and mobile technology. While the workshops touched upon different areas of technology, the same theme resonated across the board: the need to “disrupt for a reason.” The social entrepreneurship workshop hosted a panel of emerging Latino startup leaders whose startups aimed to resolve social issues. The panelists are creating apps that make it easier for non-profits and funders to connect, help people find jobs using their cell phones, and tackle literacy issues. All gave first-hand experiences about the success and pitfalls of launching their startup, narrowing in on the need to take risks, maintain passion for the idea, and work towards successes regardless of the barriers.

Among my favorites was the workshop on the future of mobile technology and its significance to the Latino community. Perhaps it was my desire to learn more about mobile apps, given my recent work with our CitizenshipWorks mobile app (iOS, Android), but I was fascinated by panelists’ breadth of expertise. Their years of experience in the mobile arena and lively imagination for what could become, allowed for a lively discussion about how startups could leverage mobile technology to not only reach the Latino population, but also to create social change. It was reassuring to know that apps like CitizenshipWorks can truly serve as a platform for social change.

Mitch Kapor
Mitch Kapor, Co-Founder of the Kapor Center

Also among the notable speakers of the day was Kapor Center’s Co-founder, Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and investor of social impact startups, who spoke candidly about the successes, expectations, risks, and failures of launching startups. Participants were eager to hear and soak in Kapor’s insights. While he encouraged the group to learn the “game,”  not be afraid to take a risk, and really understand one’s own idea, he acknowledged that Silicon Valley is not an even playing field, but instead tends to have a narrow idea of what success should look like. Our challenge as a community is to change this perception with a focus on fixing the education system and assuring that students have access to enriching technology programs that will prepare them to tackle and succeed in the technology world.

This year’s Latin@s in Tech was only the start; a catalyst for further dialogue and action. With such an energized group of  “creators, innovators, [and] investors” ready to revolutionize and disrupt the tech world as we know it, I can’t help but be excited for the future of technology.

Last month, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) won a 2013 Innovation Award in the Pro Bono category for their Statewide Online Access System. The awards were presented by Law Technology News (LTN).(For those not in the know, these are basically the Oscars of the legal tech community – except bigger.)

Gwen Daniels
Gwen Daniels

ILAO’s System is “designed to streamline the delivery of free legal services in Illinois by directing people seeking civil legal assistance to the best service available for their legal issue in their geographic area.” After receiving the award, Gwendelyn Daniels, Technology Director at ILAO, stopped by our offices for a conversation about the Statewide Access System.

In 2011 ILAO received a TIG grant to replicate a system used by the Northwest Justice Project (NWJ); the goal was to create a single system for both intake and triage. The design process started with NWJ’s logic as a baseline, but completely changed the technology underlying the system. ILAO wanted a system that accommodated and streamlined existing workflows, practices, and systems of programs across Illinois. This required a highly (and easily) customizable system that could meet the specific, and occasionally idiosyncratic, needs of every organization. For example, organizations’ intake processes have different questions and often define terms slightly differently.

ILAO’s design achieves their goals through the use of a common ColdFusion object with editable text-based rule files for each organization. The text files make the Online Access System highly customizable, ensuring easy integration with existing workflows. In addition, the design makes the system easily and quickly scalable. This will be crucial to future rollouts as ILAO adds functionality (multi-language support is coming soon) and expands the system across different practice areas and geographic regions.

Historically, legal hotline advocates spend half their time informing litigants that they cannot help and directing the caller to another organization. Meanwhile, many individuals that CAN be helped are placed on hold or never get through and receive the services they need. The Statewide Online Access System has streamlined these legal services providers’ workflows through the provision of effective, response triage, allowing them to more efficiently deploy their scarce resources.

Litigants enter basic information about their situation and through a sophisticated process, the System directs to the most effective resource, whether it is a hotline, an in-person consultation, or self-help materials. They can quickly access the help they need, instead of spending countless hours calling, or traveling to, multiple organizations. In turn, providers can allocate resources to high priority cases, leveraging their expertise to make the biggest difference. In a world of tight budget, time, and resource constraints, effective triage is perhaps the essential element in the provision of efficient and meaningful legal services.

The new Statewide Access System provides legal aid organizations across Illinois with this capacity, and is a paradigmatic example of how technology can be used to close the access to justice gap. Pro Bono Net congratulates Gwen Daniels and the staff of ILAO on this much-deserved award.

The post below is reproduced from The Shriver Brief and is written by Michele Host, the Senior Attorney-Legal Editor at The Shriver Center. We’re excited that The Shriver Center is taking an interest in Pro Bono Net’s work.

Whether they work in private practice, for nonprofits, or for state or local governments, lawyers have many demands on their time. For lawyers at private companies and law firms interested in pro bono work, the time and effort involved in locating an appropriate pro bono client can be enough to discourage them from doing any pro bono work at all. Fortunately, innovative technology projects, supported by the Legal Services Corporation and others, are making it easier for lawyers to find pro bono clients and for clients to find legal help.

At the national level, Pro Bono Net has been connecting private attorneys with pro bono opportunities since 1999. Now a national nonprofit powerhouse, when Pro Bono Net started, it focused on two practice areas in New York City. Pro Bono Net not only connects lawyers with pro bono clients, it also provides constant support in the form of training events, mentors, and searchable libraries of practice resources. Pro Bono Net’s model has been adopted in 30 states, and many state-specific websites can be reached through the “Regional Sites” button in the top left-hand corner of the Pro Bono Net site.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) also recognizes that technological innovation can improve access to justice. LSC supports the use of technology to help low-income litigants through its Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) program. In 2013, the TIG program gave almost $3.4 million to 33 different projects providing a wide variety of services, including “‘legal triage’ tools to guide self-represented individuals through complex legal procedures, online support for pro bono attorneys, and improved access to legal assistance for people in remote areas.” LSC also holds an annual conference focusing on the use of technology in the legal aid community and releases reports on the use of technology to expand access to justice.

Most states have a statewide website for legal aid attorneys, a statewide site for clients, and a statewide site for pro bono attorneys. But attorneys who do not have a connection to a legal aid organization may encounter difficulty learning about pro bono opportunities that match their skills and interests. To make pro bono opportunities more accessible, IllinoisProBono.org, the site for pro bono legal professionals in Illinois, maintains a searchable system of pro bono opportunities throughout the state. This newly updated volunteer opportunity search and internship application system maintained by Illinois Legal Aid Online makes it easier for attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals to find pro bono opportunities, internships, and fellowships online. Volunteers can then apply for the opportunities in which they are interested with one click of the mouse. They can also sign up for upcoming trainings and access free legal resources and continuing legal education videos to support their pro bono work.

Some web sites that offer ways for attorneys to find pro bono clients with cases in specific practice areas. Immigration Advocates Network maintains an online Pro Bono Resource Center for pro bono attorneys representing low-income immigrants.

Technology not only helps lawyers find pro bono clients, however—the reverse is also true. The internet also helps low-income people find legal help. First, Pro Bono Net also maintains LawHelp.org, which “helps low and moderate-income people find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights, court information, links to social service agencies, and more.” Many state-specific pro bono resource sites also contain information for low-income people seeking legal help. There are also topic-specific sites that provide people with legal guidance in specific areas of the law. Stateside Legal, for example, provides veterans with legal information on a range of topics, including but not limited to benefits, consumer law, and family law. Veterans can also use the site to find legal help in their hometowns. (Stateside Legal was launched with a 2009 TIG grant.) Immigration Advocates Network also maintains a citizenship page that helps people determine their eligibility for citizenship online and answers questions about the naturalization process.

The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services has put a new spin on providing pro bono services online. The alliance has created a new program, OnlineTNJustice.org, which allows low-income Tennesseans to email lawyers directly with questions about civil legal issues. Before people can participate, they have to answer some screening questions about their age, family composition, income, and the kind of legal problem they are trying solve. People who qualify for the program can post then post their civil legal questions and a volunteer attorney will answer them.

As the president of the Tennessee Bar Association observes on the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services’ website, “nearly 70% of Tennesseans living in poverty had a civil legal need in the past year.” Tennessee’s legal aid and legal services attorneys are simply not able to reach every person in need, particularly those people living in rural areas. OnlineTNJustice.org allows Tennessee’s attorneys to close the justice gap and help more people solve their civil legal problems.

Have you had a good experience using technology to find a pro bono opportunity or an answer to a thorny legal problem? We would love to hear about it. Please contact Clearinghouse Review Senior Attorney Editor Michele Host.

On March 20th, the Practising Law Institute is presenting “Social Media for Non-Profit and Public Interest Organizations” at their San Francisco center. Appropriately enough, PLI is also live webcasting the free event on their website. The event will explain how to utilize social media to achieve common goals of public interest and non-profit organizations including raising issue visibility, brand promotion, fundraising, and more!

Liz Keith
Program Director Liz Keith

We are very excited that the panel will be chaired by Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, Liz Keith, and will also feature our LawHelp Program Coordinator, Xander Karsten. In preparation for the panel (and to show our own social media promotion skills!), I sat down with Liz and Xander to discuss social media best practices, tips, and stories.

Liz and Xander have an amazing wealth of social media knowledge, but if I had to distill it down to 10 characters, they would be: plan ahead.

Liz emphasized the three questions non-profits need to ask themselves when creating social media accounts:

  • What are their goals?
    • Engage supporters and stakeholders?
    • Raise issue visibility?
    • Promote the organization?
    • Connect with media?
    • Integrate with fundraising?
  • Who is the audience?
    • General public?
    • Volunteers?
    • Media?
    • Potential and/or existing funders?
  • Where is that audience and which tools reach them best?
    • Facebook?
    • Twitter?
    • LinkedIn?
    • Google Plus?
    • Blogs?

Answering these questions will help non-profits develop a comprehensive and cohesive plan for social media. Additionally, constantly referring back to them ensures that organizations will have a consistent voice over time and across mediums. For example, Liz recommends that organizations use the 80/20 as a guideline: 80% of your posts should highlight the community and others and 20% should be self-promotional.

Xander Karsten
LawHelp Program Coordinator Xander Karsten

Xander zeroed in on another critical element of planning ahead: developing a sound and clear social media policy. This policy should be in a single document and address the above questions, the voice of the organization, and what to do when (not if) something goes wrong. The last point is especially true for legal services organizations that receive legal help requests and must address whether their responses might create a duty between the agency and someone in the potential client population.

A good plan provides organizations with the understanding and tools to respond to potential social media crises with humanity and grace. Xander highlighted the Red Cross’ successful response to a mistweet, which is a paradigmatic example of Liz’s #1 social media tip: have fun and be genuine!

A successful social media plan sets boundaries while giving communications staffers the freedom to enjoy social media, be relatable, and display their sense of humor.

For more tips, stories, and strategies, make sure to attend the free panel or watch the webcast on PLI!

PS: Don’t forget to like Pro Bono Net on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

According to the Polaris Project, “human trafficking is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world” with the International Labor Organization reporting almost 21 million people in forced labor in 2012. In response to this growing and devastating trend, PLI recently sponsored a standout event that featured several top names in anti-trafficking law from across the legal spectrum. In a single afternoon, attendees received an introduction to key issues in anti-human trafficking advocacy, a look into the creative legal strategies used to fight it, and insight on the New York Courts’ groundbreaking trafficking initiatives from the very judges who created them.

The Honorable Judy Harris Kluger led off the afternoon with an introduction and some comments on the central issues around human trafficking. Judge Kluger recently took the helm at Sanctuary for Families after a distinguished career in the New York Courts for which she earned acclaim for her extensive efforts and expertise around human trafficking and domestic violence. Her comments were followed by a panel that introduced volunteers to key concepts in understanding and exposing human trafficking, such as how to define human trafficking and how it typically operates. Dorchen Leidholdt, Taina Bien-Aime, and Anne Milgram discussed the many guises of trafficking as it exists in virtually every inhabited corner of the globe.

With a grounding in the core concepts, the event turned to the criminal justice system’s response to human trafficking. This engaging discussion between Lori L. Cohen, Kate Mogulescu, and John Temple (i.e., two defense attorneys and a prosecutor) covered the various strategies available to their clients and, most interestingly, the degree to which their aims are often similar. While the defense represents trafficking victims charged with crimes, prosecution and defense are often able to work together to obtain good outcomes for victims and target higher-level operators who control the trafficking. The panelists also discussed the intersection of criminal and immigration law in trafficking cases, a frequent occurrence that makes cases significantly more complicated due to the byzantine way that U.S. immigration law treats criminal convictions for purposes of potential residency or deportability.

The concluding panel “A View from the Bench” provided candid comments from the judges who created and/or currently oversee the problem-solving courts that deal with human trafficking: the Hon. Judy Harris Kluger, Hon. Fernando Camacho, and Hon. Toko Serita. The judges’ discussion of the Human Trafficking Intervention Courts was quite thought-provoking, as was Judge Camacho’s compelling story about his innovative effort to create a court to serve teenagers charged with prostitution-related offenses. Judge Camacho’s work with Rachel Lloyd and GEMS are a testament to the amazing results courts can achieve by thinking outside the box.

Congratulations to PLI Program Attorney Doreen Odom on putting together a terrific program!

We are pleased to feature a guest post from Nicholas Glicher of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Nick is Co-Head of Legal at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, having spent a number of years practising law at an international law firm. He looks after TrustLaw Connect’s global network of law firms and in-house legal teams, and manages legal projects submitted by non-profit and social entrepreneur partners. Below, Nick reports on the new TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono.

Nick Glicher
Nick Glicher of TrustLaw

TrustLaw Connect’s latest initiative is the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono: a global survey designed to create a resource that can help firms around the world understand how to get the most out of their pro bono programme.

Before I moved from private practice into the pro bono sector, I had no idea how pro bono matters arrived on my desk. I used to get emails flagging projects and would take them on if I had the time. More likely, I would find the email again a couple of weeks later under an avalanche of other messages about payment waterfalls in some securitisation I was working on. It never occurred to me to question how these projects were sourced, how my firm decided whether to take the projects on or not, and how many other steps had been taken before the project arrived on my desk.

I was fortunate enough to work at a firm where pro bono was embedded within the organisation, and there was a fairly smooth process to take on matters (or at least so it seemed to me). But how would you go about starting a formal pro bono practice in a firm? How do you get the momentum and enthusiasm required to develop a sustainable programme? How do you get the buy-in of partners that have been-doing-very-well-without-pro-bono-for-a-long-time-thank-you-very-much?

There is a wealth of knowledge and experience out there from firms with well-established, successful, and sophisticated pro bono programmes. But, working out how to tap into that is key to giving firms a leg-up as they develop their practices, and not only locally, but internationally too.

Working for a global pro bono organisation, I not only see the differences between law firms and in pro bono programmes around the world but also the similarities, in my everyday work. And, we regularly get asked by firms, large and small, in many different countries whether we have any ideas as to how they can do more and get more out of their programme. After all, law firms in Madagascar, Mongolia, and Monaco generally share the same goals and challenges when it comes to pro bono.

It is this that is the genesis of the TrustLaw Index of Pro Bono – we want to create a resource for the pro bono community that helps law firms understand what the key factors are in organising a successful programme, so that firms can learn from each other and assimilate the ideas that would work for them in their local context. TrustLaw’s mission is to spread the practice of pro bono around the world, and providing a resource that fosters structural assistance like this fits the bill perfectly.

But in order to create this resource, we need your help. We need to know as much as possible about pro bono programmes and the different approaches firms take in organising them to ensure we have the depth of information to provide comprehensive data back to the sector. Please let us know what your firm does and how it does it, so others can learn from your experiences, and hopefully you can learn from theirs. For more information, check out the Index page on our site.

At the beginning of February, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP hosted the 2014 LawHelp Interactive Technology Summit in their New York office. The summit was organized with generous support from the Legal Services Corporation.

The 2014 LHI Tech Summit was yet another success!

As always, the summit is a wonderful opportunity to catch up with our partners [i] to discuss LHI’s 2014 objectives and sync up for the year ahead. We covered many topics at the summit beginning with a review of LHI’s accomplishments and lessons learned in 2013, a look at the technical roadmap for the year ahead, and a discussion of the long-term vision for LHI.

Here are some highlights from the day: 

  • LHI’s Accomplishments in 2013: Last year was an exciting year for LHI. It included e-filing pilots launching in New York and Minnesota, the completion of an in-house LHI reporting infrastructure, and the soft launch of LawHelp Interactive widgets. There were over 4,000 interviews and templates hosted by LHI covering a wide range of legal needs and the number of LHI interviews and documents assembled through LHI both grew 14% when compared to 2012. At the summit we discussed how to leverage the work and lessons learned in 2013 as we move forward with the technical roadmap for the current year.
  • The Technical Roadmap for 2014: One of the biggest projects for LHI in 2014 will be the rebuild of its technical infrastructure. LHI, in partnership with Blue Ridge Legal Services, will be rebuilding to make the system more reliable and scalable as well as to allow for easier integration with case management and e-filing systems in courts nationwide. Along with the rebuild, LHI will be completing the full rollout of its widgets project, upgrading the system to interface with HotDocs 11, implementing A2J 5.0 into its platform, and working with partner organizations in Idaho and Oklahoma on projects applying innovative uses of LHI.
  • The Long-Term Vision for LHI: The summit discussions ended with a conversation facilitated by Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems examining the long-term vision for LHI. Going forward, we hope to increase legal aid organizations’ use of LHI by demonstrating the long-term benefits of LHI adoption and continue to explore innovative ways to use LHI technology to meet the needs of our partners and low-income individuals who experience legal issues. We also discussed LSC’s “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice,” which was released last December. The report discussed document assembly as a key component of its mission to “to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs.” It is our hope that the work LHI is completing this year and moving forward will be in line with this mission and, along with the work and collaboration of our partners, get us one step closer to closing the justice gap.

Pro Bono Net’s Ahuva Shabtai contributed to this report.


[i] Attendees included LSC, HotDocs Corporation, Capstone Practice Systems, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Southeast Ohio Legal Services, and the Pro Bono Net LHI team.

On Friday, February 21st I broke from my normal office routine and headed up to Fordham Law School for the annual Fordham Environmental Law Review Symposium, which this year was titled “Eye of the Storm: Hurricane Sandy Response and Rebuilding Strategies.” The panels at the Symposium demonstrated an emphasis on addressing the systemic problems Sandy illuminated with long-term policy changes that will lessen the level of inequality in the response to future disasters.

Fordham Law School

I expected the forum would be too legal and technical for me to fully understand, but was pleasantly surprised to find much of the discussion practical and relatable to anyone with an interest or background in Sandy issues. Three panels – on the community vulnerabilities Sandy exposed, governance and compensation, and reducing vulnerability while increasing resilience – followed a keynote address by Bruch College adjunct professor and New York State Assembly candidate Cory Evans.

Evans focused his address on the tension between recognizing the need to immediately respond to a disaster with the desire to establish a proper process for relief administration. In the first panel, attorneys and advocates highlighted how Sandy was particularly damaging to groups such as the disabled and public housing residents and how decision-making failed to include community input, while Loyola University and Tulane University professor Robert Verchick demonstrated the large body of evidence showing patterns in how disasters disproportionally affect certain groups.

The second panel focused on how present taxation, disaster management, and insurance systems could be modified to allow for a more equal response to disasters on behalf of all populations. In the third panel, attorneys and academics involved with Sandy response proposed deeper information sharing by non-profits, a series of improvements to New York City’s Build It Back program, a program to subsidize home elevations, modifications to federal disaster programs, and the inclusion of more alternative dispute resolutions.

Many New York homeowners and renters still have yet to rebuild from the storm

Unsurprisingly, many of the same issues were also addressed at the Disaster Lawyering Post-Sandy Conference co-hosted by Pro Bono Net, The Legal Aid Society and the City Bar Justice Center this past October. In October, I was just familiarizing myself with the myriad legal issues clients, pro bono, and legal services attorneys have faced related to Sandy. Thus, I was surprised when panelists at that conference highlighted inequalities in Sandy’s impact and with the effects of recovery programs. I was also first learning about insurance complications, the different recovery programs, and all of the various bureaucratic difficulties Sandy survivors faced in rebuilding. At Fordham, I noticed many of the same themes outlined and the same continuing problems that the attorneys and advocates were working to address.

However, I did notice a glaring difference between what I heard in October at the New York City Bar Association and the panels at the Symposium. While much of October’s discussion focused on service delivery and how lawyers could better respond to disasters, the speakers now proposed policy and programmatic responses. The speakers were not ignoring the continuing problems and need for services, and many are working full-time on cases and advocacy related to more immediate responses, but there was also an increasing recognition that now is the time to start thinking about addressing the underlying problems that led to the disproportionate effects of Sandy.

Cory Evans, the keynote speaker at the Fordham Symposium, noted that the serious, vexing, and fundamental policy questions about disaster response should not be asked during a disaster but rather in advance. At Fordham, the Sandy legal responders demonstrated that they are not only thinking about Sandy response but also about the fundamental policy questions regarding the inevitable next disaster. Similarly, at Pro Bono Net we are preparing for the future by institutionalizing the knowledge and collaborative processes developed in the legal services and pro bono community during Sandy relief, without ignoring continuing needs. Hopefully, together we can make long-term progress.