Though statewide recovery efforts have been underway in response to Hurricane Sandy, one Newark-based law firm has noticed a missing volunteer legal services network in the face of enormous demand — especially with Federal Emergency Management Agency application denials starting to flood in. To fill that major hole, it's collaborating with FEMA, the New Jersey State Bar Association, and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice on a pro bono structure for law-related disaster assistance throughout New Jersey.
The State Bar Association took the first step toward a comprehensive solution on Nov. 12 by launching a toll-free legal aid helpline for residents affected by the superstorm who cannot afford to pay an attorney. Since then, more than 140 lawyers from all-sized firms across New Jersey have devoted time and expertise to help Hurricane Sandy victims with insurance-related claims, FEMA appeals, landlord-tenant matters and creditor-debtor matters, according to a spokeswoman for the group.
In addition to the helpline, pro bono representation nonprofit Volunteer Lawyers for Justice is partnering with FEMA and McCarter & English to provide on-location legal guidance and distribute handbooks that include disaster-related information starting next week.
"We had some partners with 30 years of experience working on the handbook, who would usually charge their hourly rate of many hundreds of dollars to provide this kind of legal advice," said Emily B. Goldberg, the firm-wide pro bono director for McCarter & English. "Without question, we're going to be dedicating many hours of pro bono services to the relief efforts, which could last more than seven years judging by the need after (Hurricane) Katrina."
Like many companies throughout New Jersey, McCarter & English decided to donate a six-figure sum to the American Red Cross and the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. However, the law firm is going the extra mile by giving VLJ $75,000 to staff a full-time pro bono lawyer who will aid people affected by the storm.
"There's a tremendous demand for help with FEMA denial appeals right now, and there are lots of volunteer lawyers getting involved, but we realized we need a full-time person to manage the mayhem," said Geoffrey R. Goldberg, chief advancement officer for McCarter & English. "We have a long history with helping VLJ, so when they told us what they needed, we were more than happy to help."
While Volunteer Lawyers for Justice has not yet hired the full-time attorney, Emily Goldberg said she already has "a list of 50 attorneys at our firm who want to offer their services pro bono at FEMA sites."
"In New Jersey, what you see is a real spirit of people wanting to help in major disaster times. That was certainly true after 9/11 when we set out to help families, and it's showing itself again with Sandy," Emily Goldberg said. "The difference is the sheer number of people affected by this storm is so enormous. That's why the state needs to be addressed holistically, and why we're so willing to get on board."