Where are the lawyers?

After Katrina, almost 9,000 prisoners — mostly pretrial detainees awaiting trial on non-violent charges — languished nearly nine months before their day in court. The reasons: the destruction of justice system’s infrastructure, the evacuation of the detainees from flooded New Orleans, and the decimation of the public defender’s office.

After 9/11, more than 100,000 New Yorkers lost their jobs, and between 3,000 and 6,000 individuals and families were displaced by the destruction of the Twin Towers.

The survivors of the nearly 3,000 who died, in addition to facing the trauma, required emergency legal assistance such as obtaining death certificates, applying for emergency funds, probating wills, and seeking answers to legal and tax questions.

Yet the response by the private bar to these crises belied the profession’s ethical responsibility to meeting social responsibilities, argues University of Maryland law professor Douglas L. Colbert.

“Many volunteer lawyers came forward and helped with free legal assistance,” Colbert said. “They don’t see themselves as superheroes, only regular attorneys meeting their ethical duty in a time of crisis. Yet, why so few? Lawyers are aware of their ethical responsibility as public citizens to meeting social responsibilities.”

Colbert researched the legal profession’s responses to the two crises in a Howard Law Review article, “Professional Responsibility in Crisis.”

Louisiana’s bar revealed only “a small cadre of [about 100] heroic attorneys . . . gave generously of their time to people who were in dire need of legal representation,” Colbert wrote.

Even as more lawyers volunteered, most of “Louisiana’s [16,000] lawyers continued to remain on the sidelines and had not sufficiently replenished the ranks of this exhausted group of volunteers,” he wrote.

Ultimately, “hundreds more of Louisiana’s bar members contributed some pro bono, mostly on the civil side,” Colbert said.

In New York, the bar’s response to 9/11 was similar — in the low-single-digits.

While 3,000 lawyers volunteered their help, “the profession’s response … offers no grounds for complacency,” write Stanford Law professor Deborah Rhode in a critique referenced by Colbert.

About 95 percent of New York’s bar members “declined to participate and contribute any time to 9/11 victims’ needs” — and many who did, volunteered “relatively modestly.”

Colbert’s question: “In a profession as proud as ours, what can be done to enlist more volunteers acting as moral agents for the public community?”

And mine: With local civil legal aid and public defender offices swamped — and not just with the “historically” poor, but with formerly middle-class people capsized by the recession — isn’t Maryland facing its own Katrina?

To read the rest of this Daily Record “Of Service” column, click here.


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