After four days of cleaning out the flooded basement of her mother’s house in New York’s Rockaway Beach neighborhood following Hurricane Sandy, Theresa Mohan realized that the stunned residents needed more than hot food and blankets.
So Mohan, who oversees business contracts for International Business Machines Corp. as a senior regional counsel for the East Coast, recruited some fellow attorneys and set up a tent with computers and an Internet connection to help people file applications for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Her official volunteer badge was a piece of duct tape with her name on it.
“Even as a lawyer, when I started the FEMA application, I had no idea what it meant or how much money was available,” Mohan said. “There’s not a lot of clarity to the process as far as what the next steps are, what your rights are and what you’re potentially entitled to.”
So Mohan and a growing group of colleagues spent the next four weekends offering legal services, and sympathy, to people who needed help. She continues to work with a network of legal service providers and volunteers in coordinating and tracking assistance for Sandy victims, with the help of software donated by IBM.
Mohan is no stranger to pro bono work; she was part of a team of IBM attorneys who four years ago overhauled the company’s pro bono program at the request of general counsel Bob Weber. They developed a three-tiered system intended to spur involvement at the local, regional and international levels. The company doesn’t require a set number of pro bono hours, but encourages attorneys to find opportunities that tap into their specific abilities. Participation has grown.
“That’s a challenge that most in-house law departments have,” Mohan said. “Our skill set, for the most part, is not a traditional pro bono skills set. As much as we’d like to be able to go into court, we don’t have the facilities to track the dockets.”
To that end, IBM has partnered with ShelterBox, a U.K.-based nonprofit with affiliates around the world that responds to disasters with boxes containing tents and all the basic supplies families need to survive. IBM attorneys now assist the group with a range of legal matters. “Having attorneys available to us is so important, because we have to be able to make very quick decisions,” said Emily Sperling, president of ShelterBox USA. “IBM’s global footprint matches our global footprint, and we’re so grateful for their assistance.”
— Karen Sloan