- Maria Imperial, Executive Director of the City Bar Fund on Sept. 11, 2001
The 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks provides an opportunity to look back at the extraordinary response of New York’s legal community. Maria Imperial, at the time the Executive Director of the City Bar Fund (she is now CEO of the YWCA of White Plains and Central Westchester), remembers being struck by the sheer volume of the response.
The number of people wanting to get involved was “incredible,” she recalls. “We announced a training at the City Bar and there literally were attorneys lined up around the corner outside wanting to volunteer. That definitely had never happened before. The phones were literally ringing off the hook.” Ultimately, more than 4,000 attorneys helped over 2,900 clients with a wide variety of legal and other related problems. [See sidebar below for reflections from Sullivan & Cromwell’s Michael Cooper, at the time Pro Bono Net’s Board Chair.]
9/11 was also a formative moment for Pro Bono Net, then a relatively new entity, and for the use of
technology to facilitate the delivery of legal services.
The 9/11 practice area on Probono.net/ny
The legal community realized “the power of this approach of building a platform that the entire community could use,” said Michael Hertz, co-founder of Pro Bono Net and its then-President, now Chief Marketing Officer at White & Case. “It was kind of a crystallization of the power of the technology.”
The City Bar and other groups responded quickly in the wake of the attacks. As recounted in a report entitled Public Service in a Time of Crisis, released in 2004 by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, the City Bar Fund and the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham University School of Law, a meeting was held on Sept. 19, 2001, of representatives from a number of legal organizations.
The group, which included New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Volunteers of Legal Service, Legal Services for New York City, Lawyers Alliance, inMotion, New York Legal Assistance Group and Pro Bono Net, committed to work together to address the myriad legal needs of those affected by the attacks. In addition, a key innovation emerged from that meeting: the use of the Facilitator Model, which provided those in need with a single point of contact, rather than steering them to multiple lawyers for varying legal needs.
As Michael explains, “a volunteer lawyer would basically help to navigate the system for the family and would be open to taking on any legal issues that came up.” This type of holistic approach was novel in terms of legal services. The Public Service in a Time of Crisis report concluded, “The importance of a comprehensive approach cannot be overstated…. The facilitator model eased the burden on clients by providing them with a single person responsible for the bulk of their legal services.”
Another key outcome of the early response was the commitment to collaborate. “Everybody had a role – the bar association, the courts, the legal aid groups, the pro bono groups, big firms were hugely involved, a lot of small practitioners as well,” Michael said.
As the report put it: “Collaboration among institutions of the legal profession was fundamental to the 9/11 legal relief effort, where central coordination coupled with wide collaboration and participation magnified the effectiveness of the community’s response.”
That collaborative spirit has lasted, Maria said, noting that “the experience of working hand in hand” helped overcome barriers that previously existed. Also, she recalls, “corporate legal departments got more engaged. Pfizer, for example, did a lot of 9/11 work.”
The legal community’s response was also notable for the key role played by technology. The probono.net/ny site was already in existence, and was quickly ramped up to help distribute information and enable communication. A Sept. 11 practice area was developed, and more than 2,800 lawyers ultimately registered. LawHelp.org/NY was also key, providing information and referrals to the public in a specially created area.
A web-based referral application, iLawyer, was also used by the City Bar to match clients with volunteer attorneys. Without this service, the overwhelming volume of clients and volunteers would have made the matching process exceedingly difficult and time-consuming.
The Public Service in a Time of Crisis report noted that the use of technology, and the probono.net site specifically, “allowed the relief effort to move forward more quickly, more efficiently, and more effectively,” concluding, “It is hard to overstate the importance of probono.net.”
“It was a big watershed for everybody in terms of understanding the potential of Pro Bono Net, in the sense that we literally overnight created a vehicle for a massive collaborative effort,” said Michael. “It had a galvanizing effect for us as an organization.”
The lessons learned would prove extremely valuable. “That model very much informed things that Pro Bono Net did later in terms of Katrina and other natural disasters,” he noted. “That was something I don’t think we ever anticipated.”