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Lawyers hit hard by hurricane but continuing to practice

Like all professions on the Gulf Coast, the legal community is carrying on and rebuilding solo and group practices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They’re doing it with the help of personal and professional friends. Both the Mississippi Bar Association and the American Bar Association (ABA) are coming to the aid of the 900 attorneys in the three coastal counties.

Joy Lambert Phillips of Gulfport is president of the state bar and says a Katrina Lawyers Relief Fund was set up through the State Bar Foundation. “We’ve had donations locally, from Mississippi and from all over the country,” she said. “We’ve been blessed with donations.”

In addition to money, those donations have included office furniture, computers, dictaphones and business suits for men and women who lost their clothing. Out-of-state lawyers have come to help with cleanup work and the ABA is providing information and resources on rebuilding.

“In conjunction with the three county bar associations, we went through the list and identified damages to law offices and tried to identify lawyers in solo practices,” Phillips said. “We’ve made grants with $150,000 distributed so far.”

Phillips knows that some lawyers are currently working from home and others are sharing space with other firms. “The legal community was definitely hit hard. Some lost their homes and offices and some survived by swimming out or taking boats. Some also will lose significant income,” she said. “However, they’ve been pretty resilient and are continuing to practice.”

Eighty lawyers attended an all-day seminar on “Rebuilding your Practice after Katrina” held in October. In January, the association will hold a seminar on peer-to-peer counseling to enable lawyers to recognize emotional issues in themselves, their clients and families. This topic was also highlighted at the October seminar. Counseling is offered by phone, too.

“We feel it’s important to take matters into our own hands,” Phillips says. “There are not enough mental health people to handle the depression.”

Gulfport attorney John Harrall thinks the Coast has yet to see the peak in depression. “We need to recognize the depression issues and go to the aid of our members and clients,” he said.

Harrall, an attorney with Butler Snow law firm that has offices in Memphis, Jackson and Gulfport, had 5-1/2 feet of water in his home and is living in a FEMA trailer. He is trying to find contractors to rebuild his home and says his days are nowhere near normal.

“It is very difficult to focus and do normal day-to-day things,” he said. “Still, I’m enthusiastic about rebuilding the Coast and I’m meeting with people on opportunities here.”
He feels fortunate his office on the second floor of the Whitney Bank Building did not flood although the first floor washed out. “It’s built like a tank shelter. We were out of work for two weeks but were able to carry on in our Jackson office. We didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “We’re here, but we’re surrounded by destruction. I know that others have had to find temporary space for up to 12 months or more.”

Ed Donovan has had a solo practice in Biloxi for 31 years. He did not come out well in the hurricane and is displaced from his home and office. His home on Miramar Avenue, built in 1947, was blown off its piers and completely obliterated by the storm surge.

“It’s where we raised three kids and I wish we still had it,” he said. “There’s not a house standing in my block.”
Donavan’s office is in downtown Biloxi between Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant and Biloxi Regional Hospital. It is a renovated old house that lost its roof and everything above the first level in the storm. “Water got in and it’s essentially trashed,” he said. “It will be six months to a year before I can rebuild it.”

Despite all of this, he feels he’s lucky. He’s living in rental property near where his house was and is sharing office space with the Pringle & Roemer Law Firm. “Thanks to my friends in the legal profession, I have an office and my secretary is in the hallway,” he said. “I’ve had my phone moved to the temporary office and have been able to reach most of my clients.”

Donovan says he didn’t have a high volume practice, but he serves as attorney for the Biloxi School Board and is on the Board of Commissioners for the State Bar Association.

“My outlook is that it’s a challenge, but I’m optimistic,” he says. “I will get back to business at my old location. In the meantime, I will keep working where I am.”
He’s not yet sure about rebuilding his home, saying he’ll complete his office first and go from there.

Phillips is in-house counsel for Hancock Bank where the main 15-story building is out of use until August. All windows were blown out. She moved files the day before the storm and is currently located in the bank’s old eight-story building along with the bank administration department. Quarters are tight but she is thankful for the space.

Several law firms had to move from the 10th and 12th floors of the bank building. With elevators not running, human chains handing things down from person to person moved files.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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