As Hurricane Shuts Down Houston, Law Schools and Firms Respond

Donald Guter, Dean of the South Texas College of Law-Houston, spent 32 years in the Navy and responded to several major natural disasters over the course of his career. Still, he was awestruck after witnessing Hurricane Harvey.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” he said.

Since the storm started, Guter has split his time between keeping track of the student body; monitoring building damage; pushing out messages to University stakeholders and volunteering at the George R. Brown Convention Center, a massive shelter in Houston where displaced people are coming to stay.

While he was there, he ran into former and current students of South Texas who were also volunteering at the shelter. This Monday would have marked the beginning of the second week of law school. Instead of putting long hours in the library, some have decided to spend their time volunteering. One student worked at the convention center for 11 hours, Guter said. Sara Lampert, a 2L student at South Texas, spent most of Tuesday rescuing people in her kayak.

“I’m very proud of the way law students and recent graduates have responded to help the community and help each other,” Guter said.

Students and faculty at the school — and Houston’s legal community at large — have bonded in response to the overwhelming humanitarian need created by the storm.  Law firm partners have opened their houses to clients and associates according to Gibson Dunn staff. Firms that are fiercely competitive in the court room have banded together to determine how to effectively provide legal services explained a partner at Holland & Knight. And members of the legal community — from law students to big law partners — have donated time, energy and resources to helping to house, clothe and feed people displaced by the storm. Big Law Business heard from 15 people during Monday and Tuesday following the disaster.

Houston has been hit with 14 trillion gallons of rain since Friday, according to one researcher. That water has paralyzed the city; stalling cars, flooding homes, streets and highways. The storm hit land on Friday night near Corpus Christi, Texas and has lasted on and off until Tuesday afternoon. Scenes from the city show ten-foot high floods and that authorities and volunteers are making dramatic rescues of people stranded on highways or in their homes. Until the water subsides, the true toll of the storm will remain unknown. So far ten people have died as a result of the storm and it could bring $30 billion worth of damage.

Houston lawyers are deliberating on the best way to be of assistance. Some firms have started fundraising drives.

Holland & Knight has raised over $75,000 so far and is aiming to raise over $150,000 according to Houston-based partner Bradley Hancock. He has spent his last few days checking in with the firm’s lawyers and coordinating with other Holland & Knight offices around the country to help distribute the office’s workload. Other lawyers at the firm and their families have been ferrying donations of clothing, food and toiletries to shelters across the city, he said. Hancock says he has been in contact with the leadership of Greenberg Traurig and Mayer Brown in order to coordinate pro bono efforts between the firms.

Scene from inside the George R. Brown Convention Center. Courtesy photo from Justine Robinson.

Scene from inside the George R. Brown Convention Center. Courtesy photo from Justine Robinson.

“While we may be rivals in the courtroom, that rivalry pales in comparison to meeting humanitarian needs,” he said.

On Monday, a local TV station reported that the building of Lone Star Legal Aid, a major legal aid provider, suffered an explosion and a strong fire. “We’re talking amongst our team on how we can best provide assistance,” Hancock said. “The need for pro bono is a long term issue.”

With the city inundated, many Big law firms shut down their offices on Monday, keeping an eye on the fluid situation for further planning —while their lawyers worked remotely as needed. Most firms remained closed on Tuesday and extended the closure into the week.

The city’s three main universities with law schools were closed on Monday. Texas Southern University is closed through Wednesday, according to its website.The University of Houston Law School and South Texas College of Law Houston was closed through September 5, according to their Twitter.

Many of the roads remain impassable and the toll of the damage is still unclear. Legal assistance is on hold for now, but when the water recedes there will be ample opportunities for pro bono work.

Alistair Dawson, president of Houston Bar Association, said, “There are lots of ways lawyers can assist: file claims with FEMA, assist with landlord if they’re giving tenants trouble…We’re hampered because many of our volunteers can’t travel because the roads are impassable.”

Other future areas of legal assistance could be disputes regarding employment, healthcare and eldercare among others, according to Hancock.

houston hurricane

Courtesy photo Justine Robinson.

Dawson has received support from bar associations in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio among others. Locally, Gibson Dunn, Baker Botts and the Houston Trial Lawyers association and others have contacted him to offer their services.

While Houston’s lawyers wait to use their legal skills, other firms continue to provide support to those around them. Gibson Dunn’s partners have opened their homes to their colleagues and clients, said Houston-based partner Hillary Holmes.

One of the firm’s partners helped people drag their belongings out of their damaged homes with his children. Holmes’ said her assistant spent hours baking cookies to hand out at shelters.

Justine Robinson, an associate at Gibson Dunn, arrived at the George R. Brown center on Tuesday morning and plans on being there for at least 24 hours. She has been helping to handle the children at the convention center and the pets people brought with them. A TV station reported the center is holding over 9,000 people and more were arriving as of Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t plan on sleeping,” she said.

Write to the reporter at Max Siegelbaum at maxsiegelbaum@gmail.com.

Write to the editors at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com and gabefriedman@outlook.com.

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