More than six years ago, volunteer lawyers, law students, and law faculty from the Gulf Coast and around the country provided assistance to communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the systemic failures of their own government. The volunteers provided much-needed support at a time when existing legal institutions were completely overwhelmed. Through their participation, the law students learned important firsthand lessons about the lack of equality in society, the possibility of redress through law, and the limitations of law.
Disasters present challenges and opportunities for law schools and other academic institutions with social justice missions because they expose poverty, racism, and inequality. Whether the disaster is a flood, hurricane, fire, tornado, or riot, preexisting social inequality and vulnerability will affect how severe and how lasting the damage will be. Accordingly, the study of disasters can serve as a lens for a broader inquiry into social injustice, an inquiry that the legal academy is obliged to make as part of its educational mission. In particular, as the most recent Carnegie Report observes, law schools have room to improve in providing more direct experiential learning that incorporates an ethical framework for legal practice. Disasters can offer a useful context for the type of dynamic, social justice-oriented learning advocated by the Carnegie Report.
This article focuses upon three models of law school engagement—a disaster law clinic, a course on disaster law, and a student-led initiative featuring non-credit, pro bono placements. Each model offers a conceptual approach for integrating community-based, justice-oriented initiatives into academic and clinical teaching. Diverse in method, the models discussed here provided assistance to those most affected by pre- and post-Katrina failures and offered rich learning opportunities for students. Taken as templates for a more permanent model of engagement in the area of postdisaster law and social justice, these models demonstrate that the legal academy can meet its service obligation to the community while training lawyers to better appreciate the central tenets of their calling: to seek justice and to serve others.
10 Seattle J. Soc. Justice 211 (2011)