Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl and Jake Hertz share their reflections on the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.

Jake Hertz

The one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is a moment to step back, take stock of our successes and failures, and ponder how we can apply the lessons learned to continuing Sandy relief efforts and preparing for future disasters.

One of the main themes that emerged from the Superstorm Sandy Interview Series was the lack of institutional knowledge and the lack of preparedness to provide storm relief. As a community, we need to ensure that we learned how to provide efficient and effective disaster legal services, so that when the next storm comes we are better able to assist clients, predict trouble spots, and act instead of react.

The recent Disaster Lawyering Conference, sponsored by The Legal Aid Society, City Bar Justice Center, and Pro Bono Net, focused on challenges and lessons learned and how to address ongoing and future needs. The goal of the Sandy Interview Serieswas to highlight the legal services community’s successes and challenges over the past year and provide a roadmap in the lead-up to the Conference. We conclude the Series with a reflection on themes, the conference, the past year of Sandy relief, and a few brief suggestions for ways forward.

The Disaster Lawyering Conference Logo

Upon finishing my final interview, with Victor Tello of CBJC, I was struck – but not surprised – at how one topic had been the primary theme of every interview: insurance. More than anything else – even FEMA or unlicensed contractors – the advocates continually brought up insurance issues as the area where the greatest need remained and accordingly where they had struggled the most to meet the massive need.

The causes of these struggles were as predictable as they were unexpected: “the typical legal services client does not have insurance issues” (Victor). In my first post on Connecting Justice Communities, I spoke of supply and demand for legal services and those same forces created many of the post-Sandy insurance problems. As most legal services clients do not need insurance assistance, insurance is “not within the usual purview and training of a legal services attorney” (Jennifer). Insurance law is complex and technical – “even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say” (Young) – and lacking training, the legal services community was unprepared to deal with the insurance fallout post-Sandy.

More than creating new problems, disasters typically exasperate pre-existing conditions and Sandy was no different. Sandy was a devastating illustration of societal changes and how the legal services community needs to adapt to a new world. Says Jennifer Ching: “one of the big challenges that we have to confront is the issue of the pro bono bar not being able to take on long-term insurance and finance-related cases. In a world where financial concerns are increasingly central, low-income people have significant financial needs as well.”

As frustrating as the situation can be, it is imperative that we respond positively and proactively. Instead of trying to work through unsolvable problems and conflicts, we must devise creative solutions that allow the legal community to assist as many people as possible, even if it means providing services in new, less traditional ways. The past year revealed the cavern we are in, but it also illuminated the path out.

In the aftermath of Sandy, the legal services community was forced to think outside the box to meet the vast – and new – needs of its client base. The City Bar Justice Center began monthly Insurance Roundtables “to discuss and learn about arising issues in an informal setting” (Victor). Other providers, such as Brooklyn Jubilee and The Legal Aid Society, brought in pro bonos to provide instruction and the “certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge” needed to deal with insurance issues (Young).

FEMA Appeals

Similarly we at Pro Bono Net produced webinars on insurance issues, ensuring that access to critical information and training was available asynchronously. In addition, we, in collaboration with other legal groups and with generous funding from the New York Community Trust, created – a website for unrepresented storm victims featuring an interactive online interview that generates complete and properly formatted FEMA appeals. FEMA Appeals leverages pro bono expertise to assist more people that could ever be served in a traditional pro bono model. These initiatives suggest a new way forward for providing insurance-related legal aid, both in disaster relief and in ordinary times.

We can combine these ideas with the traditional pro bono model and ever increasing technological resources to create a new bifurcated model for providing pro bono on tricky disaster issues. Using insurance as an example, we can devise a rough sketch of what a new model could look like.

The first part of the model scales up the interaction between pro bono and legal services attorneys through roundtables and brainstorming sessions where pro bonos provide training, advice, and tips on both the basics and the esoteric and highly technical aspects of insurance law (or any other highly technical area of law) – from both a theoretical and a practical perspective. This will allow pro bonos to assist on insurance and financial services matters and legal services attorneys to gain valuable insurance training, and most importantly provide for the effective representation of a greater number of clients. And perhaps attorneys can even get some CLE!

The second part of the new pro bono model is more in line with the traditional model. On the pro bono panel, Saralyn Cohen of Shearman & Sterling LLP was practically pleading with the audience to give firms boring, “grunt” work. The firms can do research, document assembly and review, and other backroom tasks that are essential to any successful case. For example, in the future pro bonos,can review documents generated by sites such as interviews.

In his interview, Victor pointed out that “firms are also capable of doing a great amount of research and work that doesn’t require direct client interaction but will still help a lot of people. That is something that we should definitely explore in the future.” It is more than something that we should explore; it is something that we need to take advantage of.

Moving forward, we must use our experience to create well-developed models that provide both broad and targeted assistance. As every interviewee was quick to point out, the next disaster will produce new and different challenges. Thus, we need to create adaptable models that are applicable to a range of issues and concerns. The bifurcated model laid out above suggests a way forward for providing pro bono assistance on insurance matters and other tricky areas such as foreclosure and consumer fraud.

Adam Friedl

A few days after the storm, when offices were still closed, I remember saying to my wife as we wandered our (largely spared) neighborhood surveying the damage: “I’m guessing I might have to work late a couple of days next week.” In retrospect, I was a little off with that one. The next weeks revealed to me how much of our city had been destroyed, how many lives had been fundamentally changed, and how much our legal community could offer to help people begin putting the pieces back together.

As our Sandy blog series has evidenced, many of the most talented, thoughtful, and hardworking advocates from across the spectrum – large firms, legal services providers, law schools, and more – have dedicated the past year of their professional lives to rebuilding what Sandy destroyed. And in many cases their work has just begun. What particularly excites me is that we’ve taken advantage of so many opportunities to learn from our experiences – conferences, group calls, blogs, and interviews – and are putting them to good use. At Pro Bono Net, we’re fortunate to have an Americorps VISTA volunteer who will spend the next year working to increase our capacity to respond effectively to future disasters. Many other organizations and schools also have VISTAs or similar smart, motivated people dedicated to this work.

These “next-timers” are taking their cues from folks like those profiled here – from their reflections on what worked and what didn’t, from their thoughts on how to do it better. I can’t think of a group I trust more, and it’s been a true privilege for me to work next to them.