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Much of the New Orleans legal community is in shambles following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Attorneys and staffers at some law firms were still unaccounted for last week, and office buildings and courthouses — and the documents inside — remained soaking under water. Legal professionals said that they thought they had planned for the worst, but until some levees collapsed flooding almost 80 percent of the city after the hurricane hit, they believed they had escaped much of the damage predicted from the massive storm. “We have never dealt with something of this magnitude, but we’re going to have to,” said Gregory Bodin, president of the Baton Rouge Bar Association. With offices at the Louisiana State Bar Association and the New Orleans Bar Association flooded, the Baton Rouge organization is serving as the headquarters for the other groups. The New Orleans area was home to about 7,500 lawyers, Bodin said, which equals about one-third of the state’s attorneys. “Most of the lawyers lost their homes, jobs and maybe their practices,” he said. As most phone and electronic communications remained useless after the barriers protecting the low-lying city failed, law firm leaders and court personnel were struggling to find offices and even housing for their workers. “We’re totally unaware of when we might have access to the building,” said Charles Landry, managing partner of Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre’s Baton Rouge office. The New Orleans-based firm had 300 people, including 165 attorneys, working at its location on St. Charles Avenue. Its building “appeared to be sound” said Landry, according to preliminary information he had received, but it was surrounded by water. Landry said that the firm had heard from most of its New Orleans workers, who had evacuated the city before the storm. But it had not made contact with one attorney who had stayed in the city, he said. The condition of the New Orleans offices of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz was unclear, said firm Chairman Ben Adams. The firm has offices in New Orleans and Mandeville, La., where a total of 70 people work, including about 35 attorneys. “We don’t have them all accounted for yet,” Adams said. “Each day we’re tracking down more and more people.” ‘DISASTER TEAM’ IN ACTION The firm’s “disaster team” met last week to implement a plan for its displaced workers, which may include opening an office in nearby Baton Rouge, Adams said. Leaders of both firms said that they had backed up electronic data before the storm, but the condition of paper documents was uncertain. Web sites also were down at many law firms and government offices, or were operating with limited messages. Posted on Jones Walker’s Web site last week was an urgent message to New Orleans attorneys asking them to contact the firm’s Baton Rouge office. “We need to know your needs and how to contact you,” the message said. Landry said that workers were using BlackBerry messaging to help make contact, a plan that the firm formulated before the hurricane hit. He said the firm’s real estate group was trying to find housing for its displaced workers. Phelps Dunbar, which is based in New Orleans and had about 90 attorneys at its offices on Canal Street, also posted a message on its Web site announcing that its New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., offices were closed. It urged employees to call its emergency hotline phone number. Atlanta-based Fisher Phillips, which had 14 attorneys working from its New Orleans location before Katrina landed, had obtained photographs of its offices, which showed shattered windows and curtains flapping in the wind. Roger Quillen, managing partner of Fisher Phillips’ Atlanta location, said the New Orleans office would stay closed at least until Sept. 15. The Web site of Tulane University, which houses its law school in New Orleans, included a “current status” report, updated every few hours, notifying readers that it had evacuated its campus. No other information besides the status reports appeared on the school’s Web site. Offices for the Committee on Bar Admissions also were flooded. Those offices contained recent bar examinations, which examiners were slated to evaluate this month. The Baton Rouge Bar Association was in the process last week of implementing a nationwide lawyer donation program on its Web site. The program, which the Louisiana State Bar Foundation will handle, will enable lawyers and others across the country to assist Louisiana practitioners. Bodin said that eventually the bar associations would like to train local lawyers to help area residents fill out government assistance forms and other documents to obtain financial relief. Note: For related news, see Kicked Out of the Big Easy by Katrina, the 5th Circuit Heads to Houston.

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