Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP
Second Wind: Building Up Small Business for the Greater New Orleans Region
Five years after assisting hundreds of small businesses disrupted by the September 11th attack, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, through its Public Service Project, is again leading a disaster relief effort in Louisiana on behalf of small business survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Earlier this year, Stroock created Second Wind, a grassroots non-profit organization of small businesses in greater New Orleans. Historically, the “Big Easy” has always been a city of small businesses. In addition to being an integral part of local communities, and driving and supporting tourism, New Orleans small businesses are the backbone of the city’s economy, employing tens of thousands of residents and accounting for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and taxes.
Like the September 11th advocacy efforts, Second Wind unites the diverse small business community of New Orleans for the purpose of giving it a voice in the city’s hoped-for renaissance. Its primary goal is to help small businesses in obtaining grants and other sources of assistance to help them survive. Despite close to $100 billion being allocated to Louisiana, almost $14 billion of which is for community development, no money has been set aside only for small business grants. Second Wind will also address issues of common economic and community concern, such as relief program reform, insurance settlement negotiation, debt reduction, bridge loans, commercial lease issues, tax incentives, and infrastructure repair.
One thousand small businesses from Greater New Orleans belong to Second Wind. Stroock, joined by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and in-house counsel at Citigroup, provides ongoing general counsel services to Second Wind, including helping to shape and support advocacy efforts at the city, state and federal levels.
Second Wind is currently lobbying for two grant programs similar to those implemented in New York: a business recovery grant program that would help redress the deep economic loss and a wage or rent subsidy program to attract and retain businesses.
For additional information, or to get in touch with Second Wind, visit http://secondwindnola.com.
Troutman Sanders LLP
New Orleans Pro Bono Project
By Walter B. Stillwell, Associate at Troutman Sanders LLP
I spent several days in New Orleans earlier this summer doing Hurricane Katrina-related pro bono work on behalf of the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. My main task was to serve as a "supervising attorney" for 20 law students from Regent University in Virginia. The Pro Bono Project is doing important work on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims in several important ways, most notably in helping residents sort out the legal intricacies of divorces and "successions" (the Louisiana civil law term for intestate probate matters).
Regarding the divorce work, the Pro Bono Project is assisting clients with getting no-fault, quick divorces in order to solve several problems that have emerged post-Katrina. The Project has a number of clients who are having trouble getting their FEMA recovery funds because the law recognizes them as still being married to a former spouse, when in reality many had been separated for years but had never completed a legal divorce. Because FEMA allows only one member per household to collect relief funds, only one of the two formerly-married individuals has been able to get their relief checks, until the other spouse can prove that he or she is actually divorced and financially autonomous.
Regarding successions, the Project is helping clients to inherit the property to which they are entitled after their family members have died (particularly in cases where a parent or spouse died during Katrina, and the heir needs to complete the legal succession in order to receive the interest in the house to repair it and receive assistance). We assisted with tracking down the documentation and preparing the legal paperwork needed to complete the successions.
In each case, each student was given one or more case files and essentially told to "run with it." My role, as Supervising Attorney, was to work with each student in preparing their documents, to work on some of the files myself, and to answer any questions that came up along the way. I really enjoyed my time on the Project, but at the same time, I wish that I had spent more time helping out, as the Project clearly needs as much assistance from volunteer attorneys as is possible.
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC
MISSION: Womble Carlyle Aids Katrina Victims
By Richard Craver
For 22 lawyers at the Winston-Salem headquarters of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC, providing free legal assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims began July 10 as a humanitarian effort.
But after hearing victims' heart-wrenching stories and seeing the devastation firsthand nearly a year after Katrina pounded New Orleans, helping low-income families claim ownership of their property became more than just casework to the lawyers.
It turned into a mission.
Some of the lawyers said last week that they spent up to 80 hours during the first of possibly several weeklong trips to New Orleans.
Their inspiration? Helping residents, mostly in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward and Orleans Parish, with rebuilding their lives.
"I thought when we made the commitment to help, I would just put in a week of pro-bono work and fulfill my obligation," said Chris Kreiner, a lawyer with Womble Carlyle. "You can talk a good game about helping those in need. You can write a check, and money is needed.
"But to go out there and see the people and see the need, it inspires you to find the extra time. It also convinced me I should have gotten involved in pro-bono work earlier in my career."
Womble Carlyle has committed the services of 45 lawyers from its offices to the Road Home recovery program, which is being conducted through Southeast Louisiana Legal Services.
Groups of up to six lawyers will be in New Orleans weekly through at least Aug. 31, according to Anna Juby, a spokeswoman for the company. The goal is to help at least 200 families. Juby said that the firm is dedicating between 350 and 450 hours a week to the project.
"We found that the legal disaster left by Katrina is so vast that it's nearly overwhelming," said Murray "Tripp" Greason III, the pro-bono director for Womble Carlyle. "It quickly became a signature project.
"It also has provided our attorneys with a sense of personal satisfaction from helping people who have been traumatized by the enormity of Katrina's damage."
The emphasis of the firm's involvement is helping families and homeowners clear up property-title questions and claim ownership to inherited property that was damaged or destroyed by Katrina.
Because of a lack of money or understanding of the need to transfer property ownership, generations of some families lived in a house even though the legal homeowner had been dead for years.
Until those families hold legal title to the property, they can't qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, as well as Louisiana recovery grants, insurance and loans, to renovate and rebuild their homes. Some clients are eligible for up to $150,000 in federal Community Development Block Grants.
"The succession of property wasn't a problem in many cases because the homes had been paid off long ago," said Paul Tuttle, the pro-bono counsel with New Orleans Legal Assistance.
"Then the hurricane came through. FEMA is saying that they can't distribute the funding until they are certain who the living owner of the property is, so it's become an acute problem."
A main reason the attorneys are devoting many hours to the cases is that several application deadlines are fast approaching, said Cris Windham, a Womble Carlyle lawyer who is helping direct the pro-bono effort. The Road Home grant funds will start being released by the end of August.
"While this will take quite a while to fully deplete, the (New Orleans Legal Assistance) attorneys are concerned that we need to get our clients in line soon to insure they are eligible and the money is still available," Windham said.
"The statute of limitations for suing insurers runs out at the end of September. The legislature in Louisiana passed a law to extend it, but the insurance industry is fighting it."
Offering free legal help is part of the corporate culture at Womble Carlyle.
Womble Carlyle has already provided nearly 11,000 hours of pro-bono work in 2006, including nearly 4,900 from the Winston-Salem office, according to Juby. That's counting employees who are handling some of the Katrina paperwork in Winston-Salem.
"Womble's effort has been up-and-above what anybody else has done," Tuttle said. "We've had some individual attorneys come down for a week or a few days, and some law firms are helping with FEMA appeals.
"But Womble's attorneys are doing everything from interviewing clients, pursuing documents and filing and getting file judgments for the clients. There's no way we could have handled this many succession cases without their help.
"Considering they are spending their money on accommodations and airfare, and they are spending time they could have been using to make money for their firm, this has been a tremendous gift to us and to New Orleans," Tuttle said.
Every attorney has at least one family whose story has touched his or her heart, lawyer Susan Giamportone said.
"You rarely talk to individuals in these cases, but many members of a family, because it was their collective home and it is their collective problem," Giamportone said.
"One family had a house washed away in the flood. They have been living in a FEMA trailer on the property. Then the father of the family died from a heart attack in January, probably from the stress."
Will Latham, another local Womble Carlyle lawyer, said that many of the cases involve transferring property from people who died years ago.
"But then you come across some cases where the deceased died during the hurricane or the flooding," Latham said. "Some of the clients are elderly and frail. If they didn't have help getting to where the records are, they likely would never get the help they need."
Another source of inspiration for the lawyers is the families' desire to get back into their homes as part of their journey toward normalcy.
"We're a means for them getting there," lawyer John Still said. "Most don't have the money to go through a probate proceeding."
Windham said that assisting the Katrina victims has been "a broadening experience to say the least."
"We've been able to take a small piece of the need and try to reduce it the best we can," Windham said. "I know it will be satisfying to see the rebuilt homes over time."
Giamportone said that the attorneys' help has come at a pivotal time psychologically for their clients.
"Not only are we helping them get back into their homes, but we're also boosting their morale by showing them that they're not being forgotten," Giamportone said.
"I've had more kisses and more people saying 'God bless you for coming from North Carolina' that I will not soon forget."
Important Legal Deadline Nears
For pro bono attorneys representing Katrina/Rita clients or evacuees, note that under most property and homeowner’s insurance contracts, lawsuits must be filed within one year after damages occurred—August 28, 2006 for those harmed by Hurricane Katrina and September 23-24 for those affected by Hurricane Rita.