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Lawyers did good during the pandemic (as usual)

Unlike the popular perception, lawyers have always been willing to help others. The pandemic is just the latest example.
Unlike the popular perception, lawyers have always been willing to help others. The pandemic is just the latest example. (Getty Images)

Lawyers do exceptional things every day. For many, that continued, even increased, during the pandemic. Throughout the country, lawyers mobilized to support their communities and, through their efforts, demonstrated their commitment to service and their community. Here are snapshots of how lawyers have changed lives with their volunteer work during the pandemic.

Frontline hospital help

Armand Terrien earned his law degree in New York City and worked there before moving to Paris. He was a senior associate with Quinn Emanuel in Manhattan; in March in Paris, he opened his own boutique firm, Terrien Avocat. With time on his hands as he transitioned between firms, he actively looked for ways to help his community.

After finding a thread online noting that Paris public hospitals were looking for volunteers to assist the nurses and doctors, Terrien spent the better parts of April, May, and June—when COVID-19 cases were peaking in France—volunteering full time in the mortuary at Pitié-Salpêtrière, the largest hospital in Paris. His responsibilities included helping nurses take in patients and helping to provide final care to those patients.

“The staff in the mortuary was completely overwhelmed and dealing with twice as many people as usual,” he recalled. “They worked in very difficult circumstances because the families couldn’t visit because of the special protocols in place to care for the COVID-19 patients.”

Terrien said he was shocked by the sheer volume of patients coming into the hospital and the nature of care he was helping to provide to these patients, despite his lack of prior experience.

“It was rewarding to help the nurses, who clearly welcomed it and needed it, in terms of moral support, to see people from outside the hospital coming in to assist,” he stated. “To help a grieving family get through this in the best possible conditions was incredibly fulfilling.”

Food to nourish the soul

Joe Bogdan is a partner at Culhane Meadows and one of the owners of NaKorn Urban Thai restaurant in Chicago. NaKorn closed as a result of the pandemic but continued using its kitchen to prepare food for those in need, including low-income seniors, people experiencing homelessness, and hospital personnel.

In the week Illinois announced its shutdown, with no customers to serve and a kitchen full of perishable food, the NaKorn team decided to cook and donate its food to those in need. As of late June, they’d provided several hundred meals for others and were continuing to make and distribute meals every week.

Donating the food during the first week was a “no-brainer,” stated Bogdan, since it would have gone to waste with no customers to serve. However, he admitted that the following week, when the other two owners (both of whom are Thai) wanted to continue donating food, he had reservations. His concern:

The business would fail unless they focused on saving it.

“One of them said to me, ‘You know, we’re Buddhist. Buddha said to give even if you have only a little. We might be losing what little we have, but while we have a little, we want to give,’” recalled Bogdan, who’s not Thai. “To me, that was very touching, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ And it has been really rewarding.”

The response from those who’ve received food from NaKorn has been touching, he added. Many have sent cards and thank-you notes, even a homemade pie as thanks.

Doing good through the ether

Ryan McKeen, a partner at Connecticut Trial Firm in Glastonbury, took action by making and delivering masks to local hospitals. The firm has long sponsored community events for Big Brothers Big Sisters, road races for disabled athletes, food drives, scholarships, and sports teams. “COVID-19 just changed everything,” he stated. “I think for the first time, everybody in my office just felt kind of powerless as we were watching this virus hammer our state.”

McKeen’s team reached out to local hospitals to ask what help was needed. When hospitals reported the mask shortage, the team organized a mask drive. “People in my team had extra fabric, and sewing machines came out,” he noted. “We posted about it to our community on Facebook and built up a group. People then started making masks according to the directions provided. We picked up those masks and delivered them to the hospital.”

The team used contactless pickup. “It sort of makes it more powerful because we’re just giving good into the ether,” he said. “We don’t see it, and I think that’s a powerful way to give. In the face of tragedy, picking some tangible thing, some small thing in your backyard, is important. It has the ability to touch lives—and in this case, to save lives.”

Give and give regularly

Kenneth Berger and the firm that bears his name make an active effort to push back against some of the negative stereotypes about lawyers with a core value that calls for “restoring the good name of lawyers.” During the pandemic, it transformed its annual Giving Tuesday event into a year-round event called Giving (Every) Tuesday.

Berger is a firm believer in being in the habit of giving, especially in small and consistent acts of kindness, rather than through large, lump-sum donations.

“I just think the totality of the contribution ends up being greater, and that was the genesis of the idea to start giving every Tuesday,” Berger explained. The firm partnered with local and nonlocal organizations such as International Justice Mission; organizations it had a past relationship with, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Brain Injury Association; and ones with which they forged new relationships.

The firm asked clients on social media their favorite charities and, from their suggestions, has donated to new organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity and a sexual trauma services organization.

“If the cause is truly charitable and money is going to people in need rather than administrative costs, then we’ll give,” Berger stated. “Most lawyers say they got into the profession to help, and the COVID-19 crisis gave lawyers a chance to put those words into action. People needed help. So if you truly believe you’re in this to help people, we’ve rarely had a better opportunity.”

Real-time reporting

Rossen Law started hosting weekly “Monday with Manny” Zoom meetings hosted by partner Manny Serra-Jovenich to elevate the voices of important actors in the community, such as small-business owners and individuals on the front line.

“At first, we started talking about real stories with COVID-19,” reported Adam Rossen, founder of the criminal and DUI defense law firm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “We had a nurse in Miami telling people what things were really like in the COVID-19 tents outside the hospital because we just felt like the news wasn’t giving a ton of real information.”

Serra-Jovenich also interviewed small-business owners to help promote local businesses and present a fuller picture of how the pandemic was affecting the community. It also offered free resources on consumers’ rights and shared all those resources through email lists, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

“For anyone in any field, especially lawyers, whether you like it or not, we have the ability to be community leaders,” he asserted. “You always have a choice: You have the choice to do something or to do nothing.”

Fighting insurance denials

John Houghtaling is the managing partner of Gauthier, Murphy & Houghtaling in Metairie, Louisiana, and has been in a leadership role when it comes to insurance disasters for the past 15 years.

During the pandemic, he led the Business Interruption Group, a nonprofit advocacy group working to bring awareness and justice to the hundreds of thousands of American restaurants, nonprofits, and retailers whose business interruption claims were wrongfully denied by insurers.

“We started having companies join, and then it snowballed to where entire business alliances were joining,” he stated. “The Times Square Alliance joined us, which is one of the largest business organizations in the world. It represents the industry around Times Square in New York City, and it actually donated all of those huge billboards to the cause.”

The only time Houghtaling left his home during the pandemic was to fly to New York with his daughter to stand in the middle of Times Square for the public relations campaign the group launched. “To see all of those screens going dark, it was a bit of symbolism of the insurance industry shutting our lights out,” he explained.

“Big movements always start small, with just a few people, and I wanted to show my daughter there are things bigger than yourself that are important moments in history.”

Local support on a large scale

John Gomez of Gomez Trial Attorneys provided support to many San Diego restaurants throughout the pandemic, not only in legal battles regarding insurance claims but also as a faithful customer.

“During the pandemic, John came up with the idea to support local— he’s all about trying to support local as well as first responders, nurses, and everybody on the front line,” reported the firm’s marketing director, Miranda Varoz. “He figured out how to offer support by purchasing $1,000 of food each Friday for several weeks straight from a local restaurant called the Crack Shack to donate to others.”

The firm also received donations that it passed onto those in need. “Starbucks linked up with us,” said Varoz. “It had to close a few locations here, and it donated an entire store’s inventory to us to deliver to those in need.”

Gomez also gave each of the firm’s nearly 50 employees a $500 bonus to spend at local restaurants. The firm created a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels that has raised more than $3,500 to date. And practice-area teams volunteered their time every Thursday to It’s All About the Kids Foundation, where they helped feed children and families in need.

Masks made with love

Mishell Kneeland, a partner at Culhane Meadows in Austin, Texas, committed much of her time during the pandemic to working with Keep Austin Masked, a community-based group that came together to make N95 mask covers for medical workers and first responders.

The group also began making cloth masks for medically vulnerable populations and essential workers.

“We’re a group who range from 12-yearold kids to 80-year-old women,” she explained.

Keep Austin Masked operates through Facebook, where it communicates about dropoff and pickup locations, sanitization protocols, and distribution plans.

“We sometimes have people who can cut but can’t sew,” stated Kneeland. “So we’ve got people cutting, and then they bring us the cut pieces. We have runners who run things to drop off and will do contactless delivery to people who, for example, can sew but who are immune-compromised or high risk.”

In addition to high-quality fabric donated from such places as Bed, Bath & Beyond, fabric has come from other sources, too. “One of the things that’s really beautiful is that people donated fabric they had from projects or beautiful family things,” reported Kneeland.

“When you see some of the fabric that gets donated, you can tell it was for a quilt for a baby somebody was waiting for and loving or a beautiful Christmas project—probably some little girl’s Christmas dress.

“We get these pieces of fabric and know they were seamed with love,” she stated. “You can tell there was love in those projects, and you feel like you get a little bit of the community’s love in every donation. It’s really super beautiful.”

Mackenzie Ward Mackenzie Ward is a first-year at Emory University School of Law. Mackenzie is from Houston, Texas and graduated from Emory University with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Sociology. Mackenzie is interested in criminal law, specifically criminal justice reform, and enjoys running, playing soccer, and trying new restaurants.