The Legal Responders – Samuel W. Seymour

Samuel W. Seymour

President’s Column, September 2011

The legal community responded to the aftermath of 9/11 in a way that has left its mark on the profession. Beginning the day after the attacks, the City Bar Justice Center was inundated with calls from lawyers asking how they could help. The City Bar mobilized its Legal Referral Service and publicized its phone number for intake. Bar associations, legal services organizations, law firms and law school clinics reached out to each other and established a seamless network of volunteers.

By the following week, lawyers were an integral part of the multi-service center the city had created to help victims and their families. Soon after, then-Mayor Giuliani asked the City Bar to host a training session on two days’ notice, and to recruit lawyers for a program starting the following day to aid next of kin with death certificates and related issues. In 48 hours we created the training program and, relying on the network we developed, put out the call for volunteers. The response was a line that stretched from the second floor of our building, out to the sidewalk, down 44th Street and around the corner. On that short notice, over 800 lawyers signed up.

The outpouring continued. Because the needs of individual victims were so varied, we established a program to train lawyers as “facilitators.” Prior to 9/11, the prevailing models for delivering legal services involved referring clients to specialist lawyers. But with so many clients having multiple needs—among them death certificates, estate issues, disaster benefits, public assistance, and more—it was decided that each client should deal with one “facilitator” who would make referrals to specialists and manage the overall services to the client. In all, over 3,000 volunteer lawyers would file some 2,200 affidavits and provide services to over 1,700 families and over 700 small businesses.

Beyond these statistics, we know that the response to 9/11 was a defining moment in the professional lives of many lawyers, bringing home the meaning of pro bono service as nothing had before. We learned that lawyers can be mobilized quickly and in large numbers to volunteer for disaster response. For the Justice Center, the response would serve as a template for crises to come. Following Hurricane Katrina, lawyers from New Orleans came to New York to learn what worked after 9/11, just as our volunteers dealing with 9/11 learned from colleagues in California who had developed programs to help the survivors of devastating earthquakes. The Justice Center has gone on to apply many of these lessons to efforts such as the Temporary Protected Status clinic for Haitians following the earthquake in 2010.

Now, ten years after 9/11, the City Bar Justice Center will be collaborating with Special Master Sheila Birnbaum to host pro bono clinics to interview and counsel potential claimants under the 2011 Zadroga Act, which reopens the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001. Initial plans are for a training for pro bono attorneys in September, followed by three claimant clinics at the City Bar in October and November.

This September, we look forward to working with many of the same colleagues who joined with us during that terrible September ten years ago. We will also welcome new colleagues ready to tackle legal challenges, help those in need, and savor the rewards of providing pro bono service.

For more on the legal community’s response to 9/11, please see our publication “Public Service in a Time of Crisis.”

This essay was published in the New York Law Journal on September 9, 2011.