After Harvey, Firms Spring Into Action to Help

By Anna Stolley Persky

September 13, 2017

Satellite images of hurricane effects

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25, Karl Hopkins was poised for action. Hopkins, a partner and global chief security officer at Dentons, knew the location of each of the firm’s Houston’s employees and was monitoring their safety.

“We knew who had been evacuated, who was safe, who was without power,” says Hopkins, who divides his time between the firm’s offices in Houston and Washington, D.C.

With the firm able to account for its people, lawyers and staff then shifted their resources elsewhere, such as by delivering food and water to affected areas. Dentons also quickly identified a list of charities working on the ground in Houston and sent the information to the firm’s lawyers and staff worldwide.

Dentons’ Houston office survived and reopened last week. But now, says Mike McNamara, Dentons’ U.S. chief executive officer, come the next steps – targeting how the firm and its employees can best help a ravaged Houston community, as well as those individuals devastated by Hurricane Irma. To that end, Dentons has set up a communication chain for lawyers who have identified where help, including legal assistance, is needed. “We will use this office to help drive efforts,” says McNamara, who works out of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. “We can research access points to federal funding and find opportunities for individuals to become engaged in helping with the recovery process.”

McNamara adds that lawyers from around the U.S. “are raising their hands, saying, how can I help?”

Dentons is far from the only D.C.–area law firm to offer up resources and donations for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Other firms have jumped into giving mode by setting up donation drives or reaching out to legal assistance programs to offer help with the inevitable paperwork hurricane victims will face.

In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, The Geller Law Group helped donate 80,000 diapers and wipes to the Texas Diaper Bank. The firm announced that, for a limited time, it would match donations made to the diaper bank through an Amazon wish list. The response was immediate and overwhelming, says Rebecca Geller, president and chief executive officer of The Geller Law Group.

“We’ve been so blessed with our firm, and we are always looking for opportunities to give back,” says Geller. “When I saw the footage of what was happening in Houston, my heart broke, and I knew we had to do something.”

“Generally, people don’t donate diapers and wipes. These are the kinds of things that are often forgotten, but so important and expensive,” says Geller. “Our firm works with so many families with young kids, so diapers are something that are a part of our lives and near and dear to our hearts.”

Meanwhile, lawyers in the D.C. office of Vinson & Elkins LLP, a multinational law firm with headquarters in Houston, have worked hard to help both their colleagues and the Houston community.

The firm’s Houston office survived “in good shape,” with little more than some water in the building’s basement, says Craig Seebald, partner at Vinson’s Washington, D.C., office.

However, the firm’s Houston lawyers and staff did not all fare as well. “Unfortunately, we’ve learned of employees whose houses were completely decimated and who lost their cars,” says Seebald. “The firm is reaching out to those people to help them.”

During the flooding, partners with extra rooms in their houses were “taking people in,” says Seebald. “We are treating our law firm family like family.”

In addition, lawyers in offices outside of Houston, including D.C., jumped in to help take on some of the work of the Houston office while it was out of commission.

“There’s already a lot of coordination between the D.C. office and the Houston office, and we do a lot of work together,” says Seebald. “We just helped make sure all our cases were moving forward.”

Seebald says the firm has been coordinating internally to help employees affected by the hurricane, including assisting them with filing claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other legal matters.

Vinson also set up a hurricane relief fund, announcing it would match all contributions made by its lawyers and staff. The firm has a tradition of allowing lawyers and staff to wear jeans on particular days if they give to charity, and it designated September 7 as a day of giving for its hurricane relief efforts.

“Generally, you get to wear jeans if you pay $50 to a charity if you are a lawyer, $25 if you are staff,” says Seebald. “I suspect people are giving a lot more to our friends in Houston.”

In the months to come, says McNamara, the need for pro bono lawyers and charitable giving will only increase. Dentons is coordinating with the Association of Pro Bono Counsel and law firms around the country to assess the most pressing legal concerns and the best ways to help, says McNamara.

“I fear this is going to be a very long week, and unfortunately many more months ahead of recovery,” says McNamara. “While this will disappear from the headlines, it is incumbent upon us as leaders in the legal community to provide support and remain vigilant.”