The client walked into the back room of a nondescript office building in Joplin last week with a lingering head injury and a tale of employment woe. A few minutes later he had a lawyer — not just to offer him free legal advice but also to accompany him to a meeting with his former employer.
As he jumped into his car, attorney Joe Morrey predicted the company official’s shock at seeing the worker show up for the meeting at a local Applebee’s with counsel in tow.
“That’s too dramatic to miss,” Morrey said.
Three months after a massive tornado destroyed a wide swath of Joplin, volunteer attorneys are still fielding phone calls and in some cases traveling to the city to help residents sort out the legal issues that arise in the wake of catastrophe. Rent money paid in advance to landlords who can no longer be found. A mechanic’s lien filed by a contractor on a damaged home. Sometimes just general confusion about what to do next.
Unlike food, shelter and health issues, legal problems tend to arise several weeks, perhaps months, after a disaster. Legal Aid of Western Missouri, one of the organizations that has been offering assistance, recently secured Equal Justice Works fellowships through AmeriCorps, which will enable them to hire two additional attorneys to work in Joplin for two years. (The group also has secured grants for two additional paralegals.)
“We were overburdened with requests for legal services before the tornado,” said Shelly Wakeman, Legal Aid’s deputy executive director.
But Wakeman said volunteer attorneys will remain a critical part of its efforts. “That really leverages our impact,” she said.
That’s where Latricia Scott-Adams, of Legal Aid’s Volunteer Attorney Project, comes in. She helped organize a group of about three-dozen lawyers who took four-hour slots during the two weeks after the tornado.
“We really had no difficulty in filling those slots, because everyone wanted to come out and help,” she said.
About 28 members of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys also set up in Joplin in the wake of the disaster, including David Knieriem, an attorney in St. Louis. Knieriem has managed to stitch together a very busy tornado-related pro bono business. He volunteered his services in St. Louis after it was damaged in an April 22 storm. Shortly after, he drove to Joplin to help there. He said he’s still fielding calls and writing letters stemming from those assignments.
“The stuff that happened up here in North County was bad enough. There were people who were dealing with problems,” he said. “But when you’re down in Joplin, you’re seeing these people walk by, and it’s like they’re still stunned. They come and talk to you, and they don’t even know what to say. And, in a sense, you don’t know what to say to them.”
Despite the intense media coverage of the tornado, the extent of the disaster was tough for some of the lawyers to anticipate. Last week, MATA sent a small group of lawyers back to Joplin for a two-day clinic. Among them was Mandy Shell, a solo practitioner in Kansas City making her first visit to Joplin.
“One of my friends called while I was driving, and I was like: ‘You know, so far I don’t see anything that looks bad. It just looks like minor damage that they’ve fixed,’” she said.
Then she entered the section of town where intact blocks of buildings give way to miles of splintered lumber and crumbled bricks. “Not even a mile later, it was: ‘Wait a minute. This is crazy,’” Shell said.
Morrey, the attorney who helped his impromptu client, Stefan Easter, get his job back, has been a member of MATA’s disaster response team for several years. Morrey, of St. Joseph, said his participation was fairly limited until the Joplin disaster struck. But the overwhelming scale of the crisis prompted an almost religious fervor in him.
“I think there’s a desire to help right this place,” Morrey said.
He recalled meeting a man with four children who had a job lined up out of state but had lost his clothes and car. Yet his insurance company was delaying payment because the man couldn’t produce proof of what he’d lost. Morrey told him to list everything of value he could think of and to hand deliver the list to his insurance agent. If the agent balks, Morrey said, have him call me.
The man later called to say the insurer cut him a check for the policy limits on the spot, with a little extra for his trouble.
“That made me realize that what we do could make a difference,” Morrey said.