Our prayers go out to the people of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama as they deal with the trauma and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I urge everyone reading this to donate money to one of the trusted sources of help in times of crisis, whether that is the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or other disaster-experienced charity.
For now, many of the people in the region are struggling for the basic necessities of life. Food, shelter, clean water, and medicine are the priorities. However, very soon people will be looking to other vital matters, such as replacing their homes, returning to work, and carrying on with their lives. With those issues comes the law. Property matters, insurance troubles, employer/employee disputes, titling issues, and more will soon rise to the surface. When that happens, it is vitally important that the legal system be there for the citizens who depend on it.
Unfortunately, many law firms suffered the same fate as many other businesses--they are no longer physically there. Add to that the news reports that the state and federal courthouses in New Orleans and in Mississippi are either damaged or destroyed, the problem is exacerbated. There may be no written record of property titles, debts and liens, bankruptcy filings, divorces, marriages or deaths. Thousands of new cases and matters will need to be filed, yet the legal system will be struggling to find or re-create existing case files. The United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit has moved its vital operations to Houston, and others are closed at least through October 1. Other courts have yet to announce future plans and openings.
In the aftermath of September 11, when many law offices containing client files were destroyed, the lawyers and clients could turn to the courthouse to find some replacement documents. But will both law office and courthouses flooded or destroyed, rebuilding case files is far more difficult.
Legal professionals from all across the United States are not waiting for the problems to surface. They are geared up to donate time, money, and resources to make sure the legal system in the Gulf Coast is able to handle the needs of its people.
The American Bar Association has posted disaster relief web pages to assist lawyers and other citizens needing legal assistance. The ABA is asking lawyers to donate office space to affected lawyers, as well as donate free legal services to helping people with legal problems.
The Atlanta Bar Association has created AttorneyAssist.org to help displaced lawyers get back on their feet in order to help their clients and community.
The New York State Bar Association has created a fund to help hurricane victims in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana pay for legal services to file for death certificates and insurance claims.
The Baton Rouge Bar has also established a fund to help displaced lawyers replace their homes and offices.
I am also part of a private effort by legal technologists to help affected lawyers to get their offices up and running as soon as they are able. More on that effort soon.
Americans today have never seen such devastation, and we are only beginning to understand the magnitude of the impact on the region and the country. We are at our best when we pull together. Let's go out there and help our fellow lawyers and Americans.