One year ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, starting a host of legal problems for storm victims—many still ongoing today.
The next time a devastating hurricane hits the Lone Star State, the University of Houston Law Center is hoping a new program for its law students will have trained a force of pro bono attorneys who are ready to take on storm victims’ legal matters.
“There’s no time like the present to learn about the issues, so next time, you don’t have to come up to speed,” said Houston law professor of practice Ryan Marquez, the staff attorney overseeing the new program.
The law center launched the Hurricane Harvey Consumer Assistance Program using a $205,000 grant from the Greater Houston Community Foundation. The one-year-long program includes a legal hotline for storm victims who can get advice from law students and volunteer lawyers.
Students will get a chance to represent some clients in court or at send demand letters to seek to resolve their legal issues. The program also includes community workshops and presentations aimed to get the public prepared for future disasters, so they might avoid common legal problems. Law students will be hearing about common matters through the semester by attending lunch sessions that incorporate disaster-caused legal issues.
“The predominant issues are with contractors: bad contractor work where the contractor is going too slow or the contractor took money and didn’t do sufficient work,” said Marquez. Other matters will involve insurance claims, debt collection, landlord-tenant disputes, assisting clients in obtaining grants for home repairs and helping clients through audits by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said that law students will participate in the program through the school’s existing consumer and civil clinics, and courses on consumer dispute resolution, landlord-tenant law and consumer law. Students will volunteer for 50 hours in the Harvey program, earning one law school credit in return. They will conduct the client intakes, give advice to clients, review documents, coach clients about sending demand letters and gathering evidence and more. The experience will roll over into the law students’ legal careers.
“It’s the same skill set you use whether a higher multi-million breach of contract claim or low-level consumer contract,” Marquez noted.
Janet Heppard, a Houston law professor and its clinic director, said the goal is to both help Houston residents and train law students.
“When they get out in practice, no matter what area of law they end up practicing, they will feel comfortable if Harvey issues come up. Then they can do pro bono,” Heppard said. “It makes them realize: Sometimes you don’t have to do a whole lot to make an impact for someone.”
Angela Morris is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @AMorrisReports