Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and lawyers across Southern California know that all too well this week.
As of Friday, there were six wildfires that forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate their homes in the region. The fires hit major urban areas like West Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and northern San Diego — all areas where lawyers live and work. Lawyers and law firm employees have been dealing with mandatory evacuations, power outages, smoky air and traffic nightmares. That forced law firms to be flexible.
“It has been a difficult week for our local community and for our L.A. office,” wrote Loeb & Loeb Los Angeles Managing Partner Paul Severin in an email. “We have had people who were forced to evacuate as a result of the fires and a number of others who have been on high alert wondering if they would be impacted.”
And for law schools, the wildfires hit on a critical week: Students had final exams. Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law was hosting final exams Monday night at two campuses just before wildfires caused power outages in the Ventura County and Santa Barbara areas, where the largest wildfire, the Thomas fire, has burned 132,000 acres.
“We had just started our examination period,” said Craig Smith, a professor at Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law, which offers evening classes. “Fortunately, the power outages hit after exams. Had power outages come during the exam, that would have been a disaster.”
He said several students had to evacuate their homes, as did the school’s registrar and Dean Jackie Gardina.
Matt Nehmer, the school’s executive director, confirmed that both its Santa Barbara and Ventura campuses were closed on Tuesday. The Ventura campus also was closed on Wednesday. Law exams for those days were rescheduled for next week.
But on Friday, the Thomas Fire was headed toward Santa Barbara and was only 10 percent contained.
“Like everybody else, I have it up on my computer right and monitoring it by the hour and seeing what it looks like,” he said.
North of San Diego, the Lilac fire has burned 4,100 acres. James Harris, president of the University of San Diego, whose School of Law is in downtown San Diego, said on Friday that officials were monitoring new fires that broke out north and south of the school. “We have alumni and members of our own families who live near or within the impacted areas,” he wrote.
The University of California, Los Angeles, which was near the Skirball fire that hit Bel Air, canceled classes Wednesday afternoon and Thursday. But law students were still taking the bar exam this week.
One UCLA law student, Amit Liran, told the Daily Bruin, the school’s newspaper, that he was glad that finals took place.
“We can’t cancel finals just because there is a fire in Los Angeles,” he said. “This is the real world.”
California courthouses in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego counties remained open, as did Ventura County Superior Court, though some courtrooms were closed. Ventura County Superior Court also canceled its new attorney admission ceremony on Tuesday.
Law firms, meanwhile, had to be flexible.
“We were also able to maintain uninterrupted business operations with remote working arrangements, as even those who weren’t directly affected had to contend with road and school closures,” said Severin. “Folks in our other offices and local colleagues who were not impacted directly by the fires also assisted in any way they could, which is a reflection of the wonderful team we have at this firm.”
An email to Tom Hopkins, Los Angeles managing partner at Cooley, which has offices in Santa Monica and North San Diego County, was returned with this message: “Due to rapidly changing circumstances with the Thomas Fire and other LA-area wildfires some of our facilities will be closed and I will be traveling and out of the office on Thursday and Friday, December 7 and 8, and my response time may be significantly delayed.
Cooley spokesman Thomas Freeman clarified that Hopkins was referring to offices he has in Santa Barbara, where he lives. The firm’s office are fine, he wrote. “All safe and open — feel free to call them.”