Days after Superstorm Sandy rumbled through the metropolitan area, leaving chaos in its wake, bar groups have begun mobilizing pro bono assistance for those affected by the disaster.
The New York State Bar Association will host a conference call 11 a.m. Friday among representatives of several bar groups to discuss how to help victims of the storm and how firms whose offices were damaged by the storm can restore their practices.
Reminiscent of the mobilization that followed 9/11, organizations are recruiting volunteer attorneys to provide legal help to storm victims. The state bar soon will announce programs for those seeking legal advice and lawyer referrals.
“New York attorneys have a history of coming together to provide legal assistance to disaster victims,” said Seymour James, president of the state bar. “They got together last year after the floods from Hurricane Irene and in 2001 after the World Trade Center attacks.”
Meanwhile, courts and attorneys continued their efforts to recover from Sandy. Many state courts have reopened; federal court in lower Manhattan remain closed, but , across the East River, the Eastern District is up and running, although communications are spotty in some areas.
However, even where courthouses and attorney offices are open and attorneys have power, they face lingering Internet phone “connectivity” issues and struggles to get into work.
“We think most of the state courts are operating under relatively normal conditions,” said New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “But then there are others which are open, but which we are having difficulty with operations, like out on Long Island. And others are not open at all.”
Lippman said that the most persistent trouble spots are in lower Manhattan and Nassau County.
According to utility officials, power should be restored in Manhattan by end of the week. But a return to normal court operations also depends on the restoration of public transit.
It could be well into next week before power and electronic capabilities are restored to Nassau County, Lippman said. Like Manhattan, most court operations were suspended Thursday.Lippman said the fallout from Sandy, in its own way, is proving as disruptive to the courts as the terrorist attacks were on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center.
“You don’t have the tremendous loss of life that you had on 9/11, but in some ways the affected area is much larger,” Lippman said. “In 9/11, the immediate ‘frozen zone’ was identifiable. But here you have it all across the metropolitan area. You have this total failure of transportation, in electricity, in so many different areas that it is traumatic in a different way. The loss of life was so overwhelming on 9/11 and the act was so heinous that it is very different than an act of nature. But I think both are traumatic in their own ways.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order suspending speedy trial deadlines and other statutory time restrictions in criminal, family and civil cases.
The order suspends until further notice Criminal Procedure Law time restrictions that would otherwise bar prosecutions in Bronx, Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, New York, Orange, Putnam, Queens, Richmond, Rockland and Suffolk counties and which could limit the time a deliberating jury in the same counties could be in recess. It follows extension of deadlines in pending cases issued by the chief judges of the Southern District and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District.
Without electricity, four offices of the Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan closed down, but attorneys have continued to attend arraignments.
Based on past recovery efforts, Steven Banks, Legal Aid’s attorney-in-chief, said the group is anticipating increased need for legal help in FEMA assistance, food stamps, Medicaid and housing issues, such as lack of access to electricity, water or elevator services, as well as help for alternative housing.
“Before the storm, there was a huge increase in demand for our services because of the continuing economic downtown,” he said. “The storm clearly exacerbated those problems in a number of our client communities,” in areas like Coney Island, Staten Island and parts of Queens, Manhattan and other communities.
Banks said the organization developed a plan in advance of the storm so attorneys could get to work, and staff organized car pool. He added that Legal Aid also has arranged for employees among the 600 who normally work in Manhattan—a third of its staff— to go to other locations.
At Legal Aid’s headquarters on Water Street, several feet of water flooded the building’s lobby on the first floor, he said. The group’s offices start on the third floor. Like other organizations downtown, it is not sure when it can return.
The Unified Court System faces similar doubts, with its nearby headquarters on Beaver Street shut down and many of the 200 employees who work there sent to other functional court locations.
At some locations, Legal Aid is experiencing telephone and Internet access problems. Continuing to operate with limited phone and Internet access “is a significant challenge,” Banks said.
“The commitment of the staff has been extraordinary,” he said.
G. Foster Mills, managing attorney of the City Law Department, said its office at 100 Church St. in Manhattan is closed because the building does not have electricity.Service of all process and interlocutory papers which would normally occur at Church Street may be made in the lobby of 350 Jay St. in Brooklyn.
Additionally, Mills said that since attorneys are unable to reach their offices or files in Manhattan, the office is asking courts to adjourn any calendared matter for two weeks. Mills said all depositions, with the exception of Family Court, scheduled for next week—the week of Nov. 5—are postponed with plans to resume depositions the week of Nov. 12. The agency is asking attorneys to call next week for information about specific depositions at the following numbers: Bronx— (718) 590-3971; Brooklyn —(718) 222-2069; Manhattan — (718) 222-2001; Queens — (718) 206-4703; Staten Island — (718) 447-5985. For general office inquires, call (718) 222-2226.
While many law firms downtown were closed, lawyers and staff of Midtown firms who tried to get to work faced arduous commutes and sometimes interrupted services in partially empty offices.
‘Difficult to Concentrate’
Patton Boggs partner Larry Schiffer said about half of the New York office at 47th Street and 6th Avenue, came to work Thursday. “People are trying to scratch their way in” if they can, he said.
A resident of East Rockaway, Schiffer said his home doesn’t have power and his neighborhood is under water restrictions. Meanwhile, family members are staying with him. He left at 6:15 Thursday morning to take a train into work.
Schiffer said he must prepare for a trial that starts in two weeks. Without power and Internet and other full services at home, he said, “It’s a little difficult to concentrate but I have clients who expect service.”
“Nobody is making unreasonable demands” and clients understand the circumstances, he said. He added that attorneys are supporting one another’s work. “You got to do what you can do” to get focused,”to get your head back in the game,” Schiffer said.
At Bingham McCutchen, at 53rd Street and Park Avenue, the office opened Wednesday for those who could make it in. About 25 percent of the 400-person office appeared, said Anthony Carbone, the office’s managing partner.
Many attorneys and staff are still working remotely from home, which may be better than trying to commute for long hours, he said. One employee from Staten Island was on a bus for five hours and couldn’t even make it to the office, Carbone said.
The firm is providing extra cell phones and laptop batteries to those who need it. “Our IT folks have been reaching out to all attorneys to make sure they had remote access,” he said, while other firm offices are providing support.
Meanwhile, the firm even closed some deals this week in corporate and real estate, Carbone said.
Jenner & Block opened its downtown office Wednesday, after working by phone earlier in the week, said Richard Ziegler, managing partner of the firm’s New York office. About half of the office’s lawyers made it the office Wednesday.
“The fact that Con Ed had turned off its steam service made our offices at 919 Third Avenue pretty chilly by the end of the day,” Ziegler said in an e-mail.
At least one of Jenner & Block’s partners in Westchester is working out of a hotel, he said, and an associate in lower Manhattan tried to participate in a conference call Tuesday afternoon via a street pay phone.
One new associate bicycled to work from Brooklyn on his first day. “My guess is that he’s the only Jenner & Block lawyer ever to bicycle to work on his first day on the job,” Ziegler said.
Jay Neveloff, partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, said office workers are e-mailing each other on where are the best bus routes and some people are carpooling. “Every conversation you have with clients, colleagues and other lawyer’s,” he said, “there’s the part of the conversation where you are just commiserating.”
At Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman’s Midtown location on Broadway between 50 and 51st Streets, “The only operational difficulty that we’ve had is that our phone system has been down, as apparently have the phone systems of lots of law firms and other businesses,” said Marc Kasowitz.
The office closed on Monday and Tuesday and operated with “pretty much a skeleton crew on Wednesday.”
“People have gone to pretty extraordinary lengths to navigate the public transportation systems to get in,” Kasowitz said estimating that two-thirds of staffers would show up on Friday.
“All in all, I think that we have been very fortunate. I think the client service has been fine. I haven’t really noticed any disruption. I’ve been on the phone with clients all day today [Thursday] and all day yesterday,” Kasowitz said.
‘So Soon After the Storm’
In Staten Island, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm, the Richmond County Bar has struggled to reach its members due to widespread power outages. Association president Thomas Sipp said his main contact with members has been through word of mouth: electricity to his own home and law office was only restored late Thursday afternoon.
“They have no access to their office,” Sipp said. “They can’t even reach out to their clients to notify their clients what’s going on.”
He and other bar association heads reached Thursday said they had not yet received requests for storm-related legal help. “It’s so soon after the storm, people are still more concerned about things like shelter,” he said.
Nevertheless, the state bar will host an event on Nov. 15 in Albany to train lawyers on how to deal with issues related to storm damage.
Touro Law Center on Long Island will announce a pro bono help center tomorrow that will provide referrals, assistance and legal advice to residents and small businesses affected by the storm. The center will open next week, according to a statement released by the center Thursday.
Brooklyn Bar Association president Domenick Napoletano encouraged members and non-members to use their facilities at 123 Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights if their own offices were closed.
“We are open and running, so anyone who needs a space to set up a client meeting or temporary office space, we are open and they’re free to do that here,” Napoletano said.
“The scale of the response here will have to be on par with the 9/11 response,” said New York City Bar Association president Carey Dunne.Last year’s Hurricane Irene “did not present the scope and scale” of the disaster Sandy left in its wake, he added.