President’s Message

Careful Planning Is Needed to Ensure Provision of Legal Services in Time of Disaster

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Stephen N. Zack. Photo by Neil Bredbeck

Unthinkable occurrences do happen, like Katrina or the 1,000-year floods that hit Tennessee in May. And most national threat assessments warn of a possible major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, such as a nuclear device or a biological or chemical bomb. Careful planning can determine how well you rebound from a disaster.

Recent natural disasters have taught us many critical lessons. After Katrina in 2005, the Mississippi Supreme Court established a state emergency preparedness committee to develop guidelines to keep courts open in times of crisis. The committee’s report, borrowing on similar extensive work in Florida, requires designation of emergency coordinating officers for each court facility and charges each court to develop emergency preparedness plans.

In Louisiana the legal community had never envisioned a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude. The bar since has implemented commonsense measures to allow it to continue to serve its members, and to assist lawyers in the state to help their clients. Measures include new offsite protections and internal systems to enable the bar to work through a disaster. It has encouraged and offered tools to Louisiana lawyers to help them prepare.


The Gulf Region serves as an inspiration and a reminder that we all can be better prepared. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that one-half of business es without a plan fail within five years of a disaster. If fire, flood, hurricane or another tragedy forced you to close your office for a month, would your practice survive?

The simple reality is that you are at risk regardless of where you live. The ABA continues to help legal communities prepare for natural and manmade disasters and to serve towns and cities when they may be in their greatest need. Lawyers have a special responsibility to protect the legal institutions and governmental structures that ensure order and stability. We urge all state and local bar associations to establish a disaster relief committee if one does not already exist.

One unsung hero is our Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services Program. Under a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, this program has supported a coordinated system of pro bono legal services to low-income victims of federally declared disasters for more than 20 years. As of late 2010, its disaster legal services hotlines operated in Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin—often in collaboration with the state or local bar association and legal services providers.

Under the leadership of the Standing Committee on Client Protection, the ABA House of Delegates in 2007 adopted a Model Court Rule on Provision of Legal Services Following Determination of Major Disaster. This rule allows out-of-state lawyers to provide pro bono services to disaster victims without running afoul of unauthorized-practice-of-law rules. In September I wrote to the chief justices in 41 states that have not adopted the rule, urging them to take action.

In 2007, the House of Delegates also adopted the Rule of Law in Times of Major Disaster, drafted by our Litigation Section. The rule in part seeks “to help ensure that justice will continue to be dispensed despite the damage and disruption caused by a major disaster.” Principle 4 exhorts: “In times of major disaster the requirements of the Constitution must be respected.”

In the urgency following a major disaster, constitutional and other legal rights may be put at risk. But the ABA must be able to respond if, for example, the president declares martial law and suspends habeas corpus. Our failure to plan and prepare will only heighten these threats should a catastrophe occur. Accordingly, I have tasked the ABA Special Commit tee on Disaster Response and Preparedness to assess the association’s readiness and develop a comprehensive plan to address institutional, domestic and international disaster.

Looking ahead, you can expect a revision of the ABA’s own business continuity plan. If a disaster cripples either our Chicago or Washington operations, we must be able to provide services and benefits to our members. We are rewriting the ABA’s business continuity plan to make it consistent with recognized best practices as provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The goals are to minimize the disruption caused by hazards, protect staff and help restore operations if major problems occur. We soon will be conducting an associationwide scenario planning, and will tweak the plan where necessary.

Disaster planning must be an ongoing process, as calamity can strike when you least expect it. I urge all of our members to follow the lead of the Gulf Coast legal community and prepare for it.

For more information see the Special Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness website. It also has links to personal and family disaster plan information.

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