Disaster Relief - Law Firms Hurricane Katrina: Bringing Out The Best In People

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Mr. Shapiro, would you tell us something about your career?

Shapiro: I have practiced labor and employment law for approximately 25 years, and I have a particular focus on the ERISA area. I have also been active in the American Bar Association and most recently served as Chair of the ABA Labor Section.

Editor: Please tell us about Proskauer's presence in New Orleans.

Shapiro: Proskauer's operation in New Orleans opened on October 16, 2004 we just celebrated our one-year anniversary. The firm has always been of great interest to me because of its expertise in the labor and employment area and its very deep bench strength in ERISA. I was pleased that we were able to structure an arrangement that permitted us to open as a Proskauer office.

Editor: Did the firm have any kind of preparation for Hurricane Katrina?

Shapiro: As a matter of routine, our hurricane preparations revolve around the need for individuals to stay in touch with each other. I personally left New Orleans on Saturday, August 27, 2005. I encouraged all of our personnel, 25 or 26 people, to evacuate. Notwithstanding the absence of phone lines and the inability to use cell phones, we were able to remain connected via Blackberry. I was in Houston and, with the assistance of our New York office, acted as a kind of clearing house to keep everyone in contact. Two of our people rode the storm out in New Orleans, however, and were out of touch for several days. The key to maintaining contact, of course, is to have each person's information immediately available.

Editor: What about documentation? What sort of backup system or safety net was in place for the protection of documents?

Shapiro: Our New Orleans operation is "e-driven" as an office. All of our documentation is scanned into our network. One of the things that I spent considerable time on before leaving New Orleans was working with our IT group to have all of our content on our local servers and e-documents transferred to the New York server. This continuation of accessibility enabled us to provide client services without interruption, and, indeed, we filed numerous pleadings in district court and an appellate brief in the Tenth Circuit without missing a deadline or requesting a continuance.

Editor: How did your physical relocation to Boca Raton proceed?

Shapiro: Initially, our sights were set on Houston. Office space and housing evaporated almost overnight, however. We then turned to Boca Raton, which was the closest Proskauer office and an office we work with closely. Housing was no problem, and the firm has been extremely generous in helping to support and facilitate the relocation.

Editor: Can you share with us any of the personal stories of your people?

Shapiro: I am afraid there is not a lot of good news here. Of our 13 lawyers, ten have suffered serious damage to their homes, two with water above the roofline. Two of our people were unable to leave the city. They witnessed first hand how widespread the devastation was, and that was in addition to a few truly horrifying sights. The media reports were not exaggerated.

Editor: How are plans proceeding on getting back to New Orleans?

Shapiro: Our office manager is back in the city, and we are committed to return as soon as possible. We have not set a date as yet, but that must be dictated on the recovery of the city's infrastructure.

Editor: Would you tell us about the Proskauer Rose Disaster Recovery Fund?

Shapiro: As I indicated, the people of the New Orleans office have been part of the Proskauer family for just one year. In an act of incredible generosity, the firm decided to establish a charitable fund for the benefit of the New Orleans personnel. The partners have seeded that fund with an initial contribution of $300,000. This is a unique action by any law firm, and it certainly reflects a set of values that many voice but few act on. We are very grateful.

Editor: What about the future? What needs to be done to ensure that a natural event such as Katrina does not have the catastrophic effect that it did this time?

Shapiro: Obviously, a catastrophe of this magnitude is a learning experience for everyone. Cities that depend upon levees are particularly vulnerable if these man-made structures have been neglected over time or if they have not been built to withstand a worst-case scenario. Perhaps it was a little of both of these factors that came into play with Katrina. In any event, the Army Corps of Engineers has done a number of studies to indicate the impact of a category five storm. I trust those studies will be taken into account in addressing the city's infrastructure needs going forward.

If there is anything good to be said about an event like this, I would have to say that it has brought out the best in a great many people. The response of Proskauer Rose is strong evidence of this.

Please email the interviewee at howshapiro@proskauer.com with questions about this interview.