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When disaster strikes, lawyers help out

Hundreds offer their time and advice - free

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

A resource manual to assist residents with the challenges of recovering from the recent southern California wildfires has been developed by the law firm of Morrison & Foerster, in collaboration with the State Bar of California and the bar associations of the San Fernando Valley, San Bernardino, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and Ventura Counties. The handbook can be accessed online.

One after another, victims of last month’s devastating Cedar and Paradise fires approached the legal aid table in the Ramona disaster center, where three lawyers waited to hear their stories.

A man who lost his mother, father and brother as well as his home in east San Diego County knew they had left a will but didn’t know where it was or who might have prepared it. A woman who lost her birth certificate asked how to get a replacement. “I was born in Ohio,” she said sadly.

A mobile home owner told the lawyers that he wanted to replace his destroyed trailer but he had no insurance. “I can’t seem to find anything,” he said when they asked if he has his pink slip. “I just want to put another one there,” he told them. “We lost everything, but before I clean it up, I want to make sure everything’s in order.”

The volunteer lawyers patiently guided the fire victims to answers, providing advice and a sympathetic ear, free of charge. “There’s a real sense of satisfaction in taking a mess and making it even partially right,” said Mary Brink, an attorney from Arizona who moved to Solana Beach six weeks earlier and was awaiting the results of the July bar exam.

Brink said she was watching television coverage of the raging fire and “I thought there had to be something I can do.” She e-mailed the north county bar association and a short time later began manning a table at the Ramona center, where more than 100 people sought advice. “I just sit here and do what I can do,” she said simply.

Brink was one of hundreds of attorneys who jumped into action as the fires consumed homes and changed lives forever. In Los Angeles, lawyers from several large firms set up a toll-free telephone line and offered their help to victims from San Bernardino County, 75 miles away. Forty gave up their Saturday to help out at a daylong clinic.

Farther south, an e-mail made the rounds in the San Diego legal community and drew hundreds of volunteers who began staffing legal aid tables at four evacuation centers as soon as they were set up. Three hundred showed up for a training session.

“There’s been a wonderful outpouring of support,” said Clare Maudsley, pro bono program manager for the Legal Aid Society of San Diego, who helped staff the table in Ramona.

Under protocol established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), once the president declares a disaster, FEMA works through the ABA’s Young Lawyer Division to set up a toll-free phone number for victims. Matt Nelson, an associate with Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan in Santa Monica and the hotline coordinator, activated the toll-free number within days and quickly had 150 volunteers from big firms and small, as well as sole practitioners and inhouse counsel.

Even more quickly, Riverside-based Inland Counties Legal Services sent volunteers to the San Bernardino Airport, which was used as a large-scale evacuation center for victims of the Grand Prix and Old fires. In San Diego, Carl Poirot, executive director of the San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, geared up for disaster relief as the fires still burned, sending an e-mail to the local lawyer community and, in conjunction with Legal Aid, organizing volunteers for the four disaster centers in San Diego County.

The lawyers conducted a kind of first-step triage operation, doling out basic legal advice and referring victims to other services if needed. “We have pro bono attorneys willing to accept ongoing representation,” Poirot said. “The response has been just incredible. I have more volunteers than I know what to do with.”

He and others running the relief efforts took pains to explain to volunteers that they were not accepting clients, but merely giving free advice.

Nelson and Poirot said, however, that if victims face more complex issues and need a lawyer, they’ll get one. “We’ll connect them with an attorney who will advocate on their behalf at no charge,” Nelson said. “We don’t just provide a phone number; we will facilitate the relationship, provide documents and resources, and contact the attorney.”

The more short-term advice handed out at the disaster centers covered a huge array of issues: landlord-tenant, child custody, insurance, unemployment, mortgage foreclosure, document replacement, consumer protection, powers of attorney, and the responsibility of local governments for damages sustained in the fires.

Besides the volunteer activities, lawyers with local agencies stepped up. In San Bernardino, for example, the city attorney’s office was authorized to provide free legal advice to residents or property owners who sustained damage in the Old Fire. The office also was available to help victims fill out claim forms.

District attorneys warned fire victims about potential rip-offs, ranging from unlicensed contractors to charity scams to overpriced or useless water-treating devices. “Unlicensed contractors are coming out of the woodwork to separate you from your money,” San Bernardino deputy district attorney James Secord told survivors. “There’s no reason to make snap decisions.”

Clytie Koehler, an attorney who lives and practices in Ramona, intervened with the sheriff on behalf of the son of a man who died in the fire, securing the release of the father’s pickup truck to the son. Koehler, whose sister was burned out, is a former legal aid lawyer who said her experience providing free advice to victims may serve as a catalyst to returning to the legal services world. “I’ve come to the conclusion (her work in Ramona) isn’t for me,” she said. “I love being able to just help.”

Jim Mullen, an associate with Morrison Foerster in San Diego who also was evacuated from his home, answered the call for volunteers and staffed a table three times at Scripps Ranch, where 350 homes burned. A patent lawyer, he said the most interesting question the volunteers got involved Social Security payments.

“Many of the questions we were answering were really basic questions where people just needed to be directed to the right agency,” Mullen said. “It was rewarding to be able to help people in my community.”

In Valley Center, where victims of the Paradise Valley fire received emergency services, Jennifer Robbins, an attorney who was herself evacuated from her Julian home, filled the sign-up sheet for staffing in two hours. Among the volunteers were a professor from California Western School of Law, attorneys for the local school district and the attorney general’s office, and many private lawyers.

Betty Santohigashi, for example, spends her professional life as a business litigator for Sheppard Mullin in San Diego. But the longtime volunteer for SDVLSP quickly signed up to help fire victims and spent a recent afternoon at a table sandwiched between the Internal Revenue Service and Aging and Independence Services. At least four from the firm offered their services.

Tom Gaynor, an associate with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld in Los Angeles, prevailed upon eight other attorneys from his firm to head out to San Bernardino for a clinic, where they were joined by lawyers from Foley & Lardner as well as nearly 30 other attorney volunteers. Gaynor said after watching the fire on television, he approached the associates committee, suggesting they help. A committee member made a cold call to San Bernardino Legal Aid Society Executive Director Roberta Shouse, who set up the clinic.

Presentations by FEMA, the California Office of Emergency Services, and people with expertise in insurance, housing and other areas gave victims important information. “There’s just so much information that there’s no way the average person would know,” Shouse said. “It’s impossible to know all the details.”

Melissa Benjamin, who had been evacuated from her Running Springs home 13 days earlier, was grateful for the advice. She had picked up a flyer about the clinic at the Red Cross shelter and filled several pages of a notebook with information provided by relief officials. The exhausted Benjamin said that although her house at the edge of the forest was still standing, it suffered smoke damage and was infested by raccoons.

“I wanted to get advice on dealing with my insurance adjuster because he’s trying to skimp on some things,” she said. “My problems aren’t as big as some people’s, but the lawyers helped me a lot. From when I first walked in the door, they’ve probably saved me three or four hundred dollars. I’m so relieved.”

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