US lawyers react to Hurricane Katrina with huge relief effort

The US legal profession has rallied around in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, with Michael Greco, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), calling on lawyers to “do our part to help the country recover and rebuild”.

The ABA has formed a taskforce to address how lawyers can help in the relief effort. “This stellar group will enable the ABA to help individual victims of the hurricane, small businesses, lawyers, law schools, students, military personnel and others as we cope with this unprecedented natural disaster in our country,” wrote Greco in a message to the profession this month. The group will be chaired by former ABA president N Lee Cooper.

The ABA has set up three 24-hour, toll-free helplines for victims of Katrina who need legal help. The numbers are for residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and connect callers with local lawyers who will offer free legal advice on problems caused by the disaster. The association is also undertaking a nationwide recruiting effort to build a body of lawyers to perform pro bono legal services for individuals and small businesses affected by the hurricane.

“As we witness the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on much of the Gulf Coast, we, like most Americans, want to do our part,” Greco said in his message. “While we are encouraging our members to donate money and goods to disaster victims, we believe our greatest contribution is the gift of our professional services to those who need them most. Once lives have been saved and health restored, thousands of our neighbours will need our help in reassembling their lives and we will be there for them.”

The ABA is also helping members of the legal profession whose lives and practices have been devastated by the hurricane. The group is appealing to fellow professionals who have free office space for lawyers whose practices have been shut down by Katrina. It is also calling on law students to contact it for information on temporary placements elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court, under emergency powers, has relaxed laws to allow lawyers from Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama to practise law from Texan offices. “We’re acting to honour the immediate needs of clients whose lawyers have been forced from their offices by the vast destruction Katrina inflicted,” said Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. The order will be in effect for 30 days.

In addition, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (Atla) has announced its own fund. Four years ago Atla formed Trial Lawyers Care (TLC), a charitable, non-profit organisation, to help victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks. Personal injury lawyers across the country have started raising money through TLC for the new relief effort, volunteering at shelters and collecting supplies. “Our goal is to get the most help where it’s most needed most quickly,” said TLC president Richard Bieder. “Since we started the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund, trial lawyers have raised over $342,000 [£187,800], 100 per cent of which is going directly to local relief efforts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.”