Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 with a force unseen on the island since 1928. The Category 4 storm made landfall with winds around 155 miles per hour, leaving the U.S. territory without power and many residents scrambling for access to cash, gasoline and water.
Almost a week after such devastation and destruction was wrought on the economically-challenged island, lawyers at large law firms in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan are pressing on, joining their Big Law colleagues in Houston, Florida and Mexico City in trying to return to some sense of normalcy in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Jackson Lewis’ office in San Juan opened Monday for the first time in nearly a week. Juan Felipe Santos, the firm’s local managing partner, said the office only suffered minor water damage during the hurricane and that all of Jackson Lewis’ staff—four lawyers and two staff members—were accounted for and eager to get back to work, albeit for reasons often taken for granted.
“We’re all safe and fine, [but] still none of us have electricity,” said Santos about the situation facing the firm’s local employees at home. Jackson Lewis’ ability to provide power in its office was one reason why the firm decided to open its doors again in San Juan.
The office, which started in 2013 after Santos was hired from former local firm Schuster Aguiló, is currently operating on generator power, which allows individuals to enjoy electricity and running water, while permitting them a brief respite from the ruin awaiting them elsewhere.
“You’d rather be in the office, getting some [air conditioning] doing some work [and] getting distracted,” Santos said.
Jackson Lewis’ offices on the U.S. mainland are also working to provide its outpost in San Juan with batteries, fans, water and other necessities, Santos said.
“It’s like you’re living on a totally different island,” said Santos (pictured right), noting that while the internet is working, telephone service is still intermittent.
A gasoline and diesel shortage has led to transportation issues across Puerto Rico and with only a few gas stations operational on the island, Santos said it can take hours to get the gas needed to get to work. There is also an indefinite curfew that begins at 7 p.m. and lasts until 5 a.m.
Given all of these impediments, Jackson Lewis is still trying to give its lawyers the necessary resources to work at home so they don’t have to make the expedition into the office, said Santos, who rode out Maria’s wrath at his home in San Juan.
“I think it was one of the longest nights in my life,” he recalled.
The sound of debris flying and trees falling filled the night sky and water came through his home in places he didn’t think it could ever come through.
“I thought that the windows, the doors, everything was going to explode and was going to go flying,” said Santos, who isn’t alone in trying to balance legal services with living life in a disaster zone.
San Juan-based commercial litigation shop Pietrantoni Méndez & Alvarez, which had to close operations for four days following Hurricane Irma earlier this month, also managed to avoid any Maria-related damage, although the firm is having to manage its nearly 100-person staff, including 52 lawyers, all but one of whom is accounted for.
“I guess people say there are no emergencies for lawyers, but as you can imagine there are a lot of urgent matters that come up from time-to-time and this is no exception,” said Pietrantoni Méndez’s managing partner Jaime Santos.
Many of his firm’s staff are on a 50 percent schedule and lawyers who have mobile and internet access are working remotely, Santos said. But the Pietrantoni Méndez leader is optimistic that life at his firm, which represents banks and financial institutions on the island, as well as Puerto Rican hospitals struggling to maintain their operations after Maria, will eventually get back to normal.
“It’s been something that few people get to live through and we’re happy that we’ve made it so far,” Santos said. “[We’re] really putting all of our heads together and making this work in the long term for Puerto Rico [and] we’re doing the best we can.”
A spokesman for DLA Piper, which opened an office in San Juan last year, said that the global legal giant’s operations in the city did not sustain any significant damage and are open for business.
A spokeswoman for Littler Mendelson did not respond to a request for comment about its San Juan office, which the labor and employment giant acquired in late 2013 after absorbing Schuster Aguiló, the local firm where Jackson Lewis’ Santos once worked.