5th Circuit

In the months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' residents have begun to return to their damaged homes and clean up the mess. The task is difficult, but communities are pulling together to help each other out.

Hit especially hard after the storm was the Gulf-based legal community. As displaced lawyers and the local court struggle to get back on their feet, most aren't sure where they'll end up.

Immediately following Katrina, many large law firms had to uproot their staffs, placing employees in other Gulf-area offices--a cumbersome, but feasible task. Proprietors of small, independent firms that serve only a handful of local clients, however, weren't as fortunate. Having no place to go when Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans, some took up residence in their cars, roomed with old friends or maxed out their credit cards staying in hotels.

And the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals picked up and moved--indefinitely.

As the government sets about the task of rebuilding New Orleans, it's uncertain who in the legal community will go back to the Big Easy and who will build a life elsewhere.

"The great concern for everyone is that institutional presences, such as large law firms and the 5th Circuit, will move because of the circumstances of the storm and never return," says Richard Dicharry, managing partner at New Orleans-based Phelps Dunbar. "If that happens, New Orleans will never be the same."

Courthouse Shuffle

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was left with no choice but to relocate.

When city officials announced Sept. 7 that they expected New Orleans' power to be out for at least a month, appeals court judges decided to move the 5th Circuit to Houston's Bob Casey U.S. Courthouse. The court previously resided in the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building on Camp Street. The judges said they planned to stay there for about three months and then, most likely, move the court to Baton Rouge for an indefinite period.

"What will determine moving back to New Orleans is the condition of our building, which we know very little about today," said 5th Circuit Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King in a statement in early September.

But only four of the 17 active 5th Circuit judges live in New Orleans. Most reside in Texas, and some lawyers in the community are concerned the court may never come back to the city.

"Of the three states in the 5th Circuit, Texas is the biggest, and four of the judges on the 5th are in Houston," Dicharry says. "We hope we don't lose it, but we recognize the risk."

Another concern among the New Orleans legal community was whether water and wind had destroyed documents inside the courthouse. The court backs up most of its files electronically on servers located in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, but not all of them.

"Some new documents may not have made it into the system by the time the storm hit," says David Schenck, a partner at Jones Day in Dallas. "But even then, the water would have to rise pretty high before it caused any damage because most of the documents are stored in the clerk's office on the first floor, which is 7 feet off the ground."

In fact, the court hadn't lost any paper documents, but its parking garage and electrical system--located in the building's lower levels--did suffer water damage. And although the court relocated to Houston, it remained closed to new matters in the first few weeks after the storm.

"Judge King said they would hear some cases," Schenck says. "But only in emergency situations, such as stays of execution and deportation."

Despite Hurricane Rita forcing it to close for a couple of days in late September, the 5th Circuit was fully operational and had begun hearing new cases by late September. When and if it planned to move back into New Orleans, however, was still unknown.

Disaster Recovery

While the court continued to find its footing in the wake of the disaster, local law firms and independent lawyers have been doing the same.

"Many law firms in New Orleans are only in New Orleans," Dicharry says. "They don't have offices in other parts of the country, and once they re-establish themselves elsewhere, they may just stay there. This is not an experience any of us want to go through again."

Phelps Dunbar was among the lucky ones. The 259-lawyer firm has offices throughout Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Therefore, it was able to accommodate most of the 93 employees displaced by the hurricane in other offices. Furthermore, the firm recovered fairly quickly because it had a disaster recovery plan in place.

"As part of our recovery plan, we created a center of gravity for most of our practice groups and our administrative staff in Baton Rouge," Dicharry explains. Consistent with the plan, the firm also moved its technology staff to its office in Jackson, Miss., along with employees from its Gulfport, Miss., office, which Katrina damaged as well.

"We are very fortunate to have a broad-based regional presence, which allowed us to move people to multiple locations," Dicharry adds.

Considering the magnitude of the disaster, however, the firm didn't expect all its lawyers to uproot their lives and go work in other cities. Making the decision who to send wasn't easy.

"We needed partners to continue to manage their practices and lower-level lawyers to support those practices," Dicharry says. "We had to strike a balance between the necessity of providing client services, but at the same time remain mindful of the incredible emotional issues that had been driven by the storm."

Phelps Dunbar's situation was far from a worst-case scenario. Its New Orleans office suffered little damage. Because the firm was housed on the 18th through 21st floors of its building, it lost none of its paper files due to water and wind damage. At press time, the firm expected to be back in its New Orleans office space by the end of October.

Similarly, when attorneys at Gulf-area law firm Adams and Reese heard the warning about Katrina, they immediately set the firm's disaster recovery plan into action. The day after the storm, Adams and Reese found new, temporary office space in Baton Rouge, furnished it and by the end of the week, successfully transplanted its New Orleans operations to Baton Rouge.

"We had to pick up our entire New Orleans practice and move it to another city. But all we lost were a couple of weeks of productivity," says Charles P. Adams Jr., managing partner in the firm's Jackson, Miss., office. "We are back in business due to the sacrifices made by many of the lawyers and staff here."

It's thanks to disaster recovery plans that these law firms remain operational at the worst of times. But small, independent firms--often housed in first-floor offices--usually don't have such plans in place. Katrina had a more significant impact on them as a result.

Almost 4,000 New Orleans lawyers in firms with less than 10 people lost their offices, libraries, computers and client files, according to the Louisiana State Bar Association (LSBA). Several Gulf-area newspapers reported many of these displaced lawyers had taken up residence in hotels or roomed with old law school friends. One report featured a criminal defense attorney who was living out of his car not knowing what had happened to his office, but assuming the worst.

The LSBA is doing its part to help by setting up the Hurricane Katrina Legal Community Relief Fund.

"We created the fund to provide a mechanism for caring members of the legal community to assist their colleagues in this time of need," LSBA President Frank X. Neuner Jr. said in a statement. "The purpose of this fund is to help law firms--lawyers, staff and their families--get back on their feet."

At press time, the death toll from Katrina was significantly more than 1,000. And economists estimate recovery efforts will cost more than $200 billion--making Katrina the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history.

"I'm not sure the legal industry will ever be the same as it was before the storm," Dicharry says. "This event has been sufficiently traumatic, and there are probably lawyers, staff and clients that I've seen for years that I may not see in New Orleans again as a result."

Staff Writer

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