Sunday, October 22, 2017
In 2005, I was still an associate in a law firm in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina came ripping through my home state. A little bewildered, I volunteered with the Mississippi Bar's Disaster Legal Assistance volunteer lawyer program and handled a couple of landlord-tenant cases. I had no idea how clinicians were responding then, but when I became a clinical prof in 2006, I learned about the mighty response from Loyola-New Orleans College of Law and their clinicians, Davida Finger and Bill Quigley, among many others. In 2007, the AALS Clinical Conference was in New Orleans, not too far from my home, and the Loyola faculty showed us ruined and reviving New Orleans, becoming my first hero clinicians.
In 2017, now in Los Angeles, I remembered the trauma of those days as Hurricane Harvey blasted Texas, followed by Hurricane Irma blasting Florida, followed by Hurricane Maria decimating Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Very quickly, we at Pepperdine started hustling to find ways to help, and I reached out to folks in Texas, only to find that Davida Finger was already at work, gathering resources, building systems, marshaling clinicians, identifying partners. She, Janet Heppard at Houston, Catherine Burnett at South Texas, Luz Herrera at Texas A&M, and others in Texas hosted a conference call that crashed when too many clinical folks and pro bono lawyers tried to call in; we ended up with two conference calls calling into each other. The veterans leaders of the Student Hurricane Network, Allison Korn (UCLA) and Lauren Bartlett (Ohio Northern), shared their hard won wisdom, now 12 years removed from Katrina and Rita. Melissa Luckman (Touro) offered guidance, help, and introductions from her disaster relief clinic in response to Hurricane Sandy and her seat on the ABA's disaster response systems.
I (halfway) joked with my faculty and administration that we needed to be involved in this work to bank good karmic/cosmic/gospel points against our inevitable need for an earthquake clinic in Southern California, just a few weeks before wildfires actually ravaged Northern California.
We launched Pepperdine's Disaster Relief Clinic in mid-October. We are handling FEMA appeals on referral from Texas so far, and we are establishing ways to support volunteer lawyers and public interest practices with research and advocacy help. Through all these conversations, we have been able to establish referral systems with the Loyola-New Orleans College of Law, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and Lone Star Legal Aid. We are working to build the means to support volunteer lawyers with research to assist efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands through the Louisiana Civil Justice Center and the Columbia University Pro Bono programs, led by Laren Spirer. We're reaching out to Bay Area Legal Services, OneJustice, and others to address needs springing from the California wildfires.
Meanwhile, in Florida, Chrissy Cerniglia at Stetson is launching a program to provide legal research and support for volunteer lawyers across her state. There are other projects underway at Texas A&M, Texas Southern, Houston, Georgia, Harvard, Loyola-Chicago, and Miami, at least. Surely there are legal clinics across the country ramping up programs and projects. (I'm nervous about attempting this litany because I'm certainly missing folks and don't know half of the work underway.)
In bleak moments, this community inspires with the best kind of lawyering, the best kinds of generous collaboration, the best kind of sharing. Without cajoling or pleading, clinicians appear alongside our public interest, legal aid, and pro bono colleagues, while bar associations rise to organize and empower. Too often in academia, our schools race for mere rankings and prestige, jockeying for recognition. Here, schools from across our ecosystem band together to share and serve, modeling to our students how this profession ought to respond.
In an American moment fraught with mistrust, division, and a sense that our virtues are eroding, this outpouring, cooperation, and generosity are a balm and a strength of hope and promise. We can take care of our neighbors and communities, but only if we do it together.