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A year after Hurricane Katrina gutted much of New Orleans and the surrounding area, business for some lawyers is flourishing from reconstruction projects, while others are still struggling to rebuild their practices and their lives. For a legal community that was home to about 7,500 lawyers, the storm wiped out communications, case files and, in some instances, entire practices, leaving their businesses in shambles and their futures uncertain. One year later, civil courts are back on line and criminal courts have begun again to hear cases on a limited basis. In addition, many lawyers have fortified their disaster recovery plans, having learned plenty from experience. A group of New Orleans attorneys interviewed by The National Law Journal last week spoke with much more certainty and strength, compared to sentiments they expressed in the days following the storm. But much remains unresolved in the Crescent City, they said, from the basics such as traffic lights in some areas to the more severe problems, including block after block of rotting devastation that also serves as an ominous symbol of future storms. On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, most of these attorneys conveyed resolve tinged with wariness. “It’s not certain in people’s minds that we won’t go through it again this year,” said Richard Dicharry, chairman of the management committee at Phelps Dunbar, a 260-attorney firm based in New Orleans. Initially, the firm moved its operations located in the New Orleans business district to its Baton Rouge, La., office after the storm. A year ago, Dicharry said he was grateful that Phelps Dunbar had seven other offices, which could help take up some of the slack created from the anticipated loss of business in New Orleans. But the New Orleans office is faring better than he had expected, said Dicharry last week. Development triggered by some of the insurance money disbursed has spurred business, as has reconstruction bond money, he said. The New Orleans office also is busy with gaming industry work, he said. Billable hours for the business practice at the New Orleans location was up 4% in year-to-date totals for July, compared to the first seven months of 2005, said Michael Hunt, a Phelps Dunbar partner. Litigation experienced “a bit of a decline,” he said. Firmwide, Phelps Dunbar has added 12 attorneys since November 2005, including two to the New Orleans office. However, post-Katrina the firm has found it difficult to recruit young talent, he said. Typically, it hires eight summer associates. This year, he said, they wanted to bring aboard that many but could find only half the number of students who met their qualifications. “It’s hard to get kids out of law school to commit to a future in New Orleans,” he said. Keeping focused also is a challenge, he said. The real possibility of another storm looms among New Orleans residents, who are not reassured by the strength of the rebuilt levees, he said. Furthermore, the pace of rebuilding in many areas is much slower than most expected. “The real key is to get people forward-thinking,” he said. Small-firm practitioner Bill Rittenberg is also dismayed by the speed of rebuilding. He is earning about 60% of what he was making at Rittenberg & Samuel prior to Katrina, he said, adding that for eight months after the storm he did not pay himself anything. But Rittenberg hastens to say that he feels fortunate to be working as a lawyer. A fellow New Orleans attorney he knows is working as a short-order cook, he said, and several lawyer-acquaintances have left the area because they could not support their practices. “The good news is I’m home with my friends. The bad news is that people are still leaving,” he said. Rittenberg and his wife evacuated New Orleans on Aug. 28 last year with two days’ worth of clothes. They were on the road for two months, staying with various friends before they could return home. While he was gone, his 93-year-old mother died, after having been evacuated from two different facilities following the storm. Today, Rittenberg said he is “in much better shape,” but he is exasperated by the lack of progress in his hometown. “The country seems to have forgotten about us,” he said. According to information released this month by the Brookings Institution, the New Orleans labor force is 30% smaller than it was a year ago, and the unemployment rate is 7.2% higher than pre-Katrina. An estimated 278,000 workers are still displaced by the storm, and 23% of those people remain unemployed. Uptick in domestic cases Although Rittenberg’s firm is still suffering from a downturn in business that it formerly derived from the local teachers’ union, he said his practice, which also focused on criminal defense, has taken in some new cases, including divorce actions. New Orleans Bar Association President Carmelite Bertaut said that “the domestic docket is going gangbusters.” In addition to an uptick in divorce cases from marriages stretched to the breaking point in Katrina’s wake, child custody and relocation issues also have contributed to a rise in domestic cases, she said. Personal injury work remains strong, she said, attributing the business to people with a pioneer spirit coming into the community for reconstruction work. “It’s like the wild, wild West,” she said. “There’s a risk-taking mentality with folks who come here to work.” Business related to the tourism and convention industry has dropped off sharply at Rittenberg’s practice, he said, a situation that he does not expect to improve given what he sees as a failure of local and federal government to orchestrate a cohesive rebuilding effort. “The city is a mess,” he said. Attorney Gary Elkins, however, has a much different perspective. His 13-attorney firm, Elkins PLC, has recently added three lawyers to help keep pace with reconstruction work. With a practice that focuses on real estate development, housing, tax matters and bond work, he is heavily involved in work related to the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act and bonus depreciation projects. “We hired two new secretaries this week,” he said. “We’re busier than ever.” Still, he, too, continues to be frustrated by a lack of progress. “There are potholes in the street, stop lights that don’t work, low water pressure, that kind of thing,” he said. “Basic services are still on the comeback trail.”

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