The Call After the Storm
Sherri Marie Carr and Stinson W. Ferguson, J.
Historically, natural disasters like foods, hurricanes and tropical storms are unwelcome, “irregular visitors” in South Carolina.1 Nonetheless, the devastating effects of 2015’s unprecedented fooding2 and the 20163 and 20174 hurricane seasons are still being felt here in the Palmetto State. The physical destruction only scratches the surface, as it will take years to address all the resulting legal issues. The intensity of the storms experienced during the 2017 season, rather than the number, is what will make this time around most unfortunately remarkable. Although we cannot stop the occurrence of natural disasters, as South Carolina attorneys, we can step in after they pass to use our knowledge, skills, energy and experience to provide pro bono assistance to those affected and in need.
The American Bar Association declares it a “professional responsibility” of “[e]very lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload” to “provide legal services to those unable to p a y.” 7 So how can we take action after natural disasters through pro bono work? Must one have prior experience performing post-natural disaster legal work to qualify and be competent? Nothing could be further from the case. You might be surprised how beneficial you can be, regardless of what area(s) of law you are experienced in or practice. South Carolina includes in its Rules of Professional Conduct that [a] lawyer should render public interest legal service. A lawyer may discharge this responsibility by providing professional services at no fee or reduced fee to persons of limited means or to public service or charitable groups or organizations, by service in activities for improving the law, the legal system or the legal profession, and by financial support for organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means.8
Do not allow the fact that you may not have previous experience performing pro bono work for natural disaster survivors deter you from answering the call.
“A lawyer need not necessarily have special training or prior experience to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar. A newly admitted lawyer can be as competent as a practitioner with long experience … Perhaps the most fundamental legal skill consists of determining what kind of legal problems a situation may involve, a skill that necessarily transcends any particular specialized knowledge.9
South Carolina attorneys have risen to the above-referenced challenges, specifically in response to effects felt here in recent years. After the 2015 flooding, the Bar led the way in response efforts by immediately activating its Flood Disaster Relief Hotline to handle call intake from food victims statewide and refer them to a quickly-assembled pool of volunteers. Bar staff also quickly revamped its 2014 hurricane response website and republished it as SCfoodrelief.com, an online legal assistance resource for food disaster victims. In the end, over 550 hotline calls were referred along with more than 50 email inquiries, earning the Bar the “Associations Advance SC Award” from the S.C. Society of Association Executives.
South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) also promptly rose to the occasion.10 SCLS received an influx of disaster-related cases and hosted a statewide meeting that December to discuss the caseload and how to address the resulting legal issues.11 SCLS also leveraged its pre-existing partnership with the SC HELP Mortgage Assistance Program,12 which “created a special benefit to help food survivors in need of mortgage assistance to be able to afford necessary home repairs.”13 Many survivors maintained ownership of their homes and received rebuilding assistance thanks to this collaboration.
Attorneys working in private practice or other even non-traditional settings are equally needed post-disaster to handle the increased demand for legal assistance. Many South Carolina attorneys have devoted their time, talent and experience to those affected by natural disasters through Free Legal Answers, an online portal/ interface co-hosted by the South Carolina Bar and the American Bar Association. Free Legal Answers connects licensed attorneys (only identified by a volunteer attorney number) to those in need of pro bono legal guidance on a number of South Carolina issues.
Clients are pre-screened prior to their questions being presented for assistance. Factors considered in pre-screening include: age, incarceration status and income.15 If a potential pro bono client does not qualify, he/she will be denied access and provided alternative resources for assistance.16 The volunteer attorney can log on and work on questions remotely, from anywhere, at any time, and need only respond to questions he/she chooses to answer. This fosters comfort for the volunteer attorney and promotes competent guidance to the pro bono client.
The South Carolina Bar Young Lawyers Division also stepped up and took action through its Disaster Relief Legal Services Commit-tee.17 This committee was...