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Lawyers line up to assist Haiti

Associate Editor Regular News

Jesse Diner Florida lawyers seeking ways to contribute to Haitian earthquake relief efforts can do so directly through The Florida Bar’s Web site.

The Bar — working in concert with the International Law Section — has set up links at that allow members to make contributions directly to the American Red Cross to help the Haitian people with food, water, temporary housing, and medical attention or to local nonprofit major trauma centers in Florida that are accepting large numbers of Haitian patients, including the Jackson Memorial Foundation International Kids Fund — Haiti’s Children Fund.

The moment the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the Caribbean nation, Florida lawyers sprang into action, immersing themselves in a variety of statewide and nationwide relief operations.

“Thus far, the effort has raised over $26,600,” said Edward H. Davis, Jr., a past chair of the International Law Section, who is helping to organize the effort.

“Many survivors do not have access to food, water, medicine, and the basic necessities that we often take for granted here,” said an e-mail signed by Bar President Jesse Diner and International Law Section Chair Francisco Corrales. The e-mail, sent to all Bar members, encouraged Florida lawyers to donate the equivalent of one billable hour to the cause.

“Given our numbers, this effort by Florida’s legal profession can raise millions of dollars.”

Fastcase, the online legal research service, is also donating 20 percent of the proceeds of all Florida Premium Upgrades in February to the Bar’s earthquake relief efforts.

For Steve Befera and the Dade County Bar Association, helping Haitian nationals obtain temporary protected status became an immediate priority. Within 24 hours of the quake, the Dade County Bar issued a unanimous resolution signed by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The association’s persistence has enabled eligible Haitian nationals to remain in the U.S., obtain work permits, and seek other benefits for 18 months, and Befera believes the status will likely be renewed due to the tragic circumstances.

“As Floridians, we’re often at the epicenter of the storm. We have to be quick on our feet,” said Befera. “The immigration laws need to be used to the benefit of those suffering. That was the first thing we looked at as a way lawyers could help.”

To further their efforts, the DCBA immigration law committee partnered with the Haitian Lawyers Association to put together several training seminars in North Miami Beach for volunteer lawyers handling TPS applications and other immigration issues. Due to the outpouring of interest in the seminars, a webinar is being developed to provide the information to a larger audience.

“We think it’s important for the profession to step up and provide free services,” Befera said.

“When something like this occurs, we see physicians rush to the task, and we as lawyers and professionals also need to be using our skills and expertise,” Befera said. “More word needs to get out about what good lawyers do so the noblest profession will be seen just as that.”

A few days after Napolitano signed the DCBA resolution, lawyers at Holland and Knight hosted a “Casual Day for a Cause” to collect contributions for relief efforts.

“There was immediate buzz about the office and a great consensus at the firm that we should do something,” said Angela Ruth, director for the Holland and Knight Charitable Foundation.

“We have employees who are Haitian, and many of our individual attorneys have been involved in helping the Haitian people over the years, so this resonated, and we acted quickly.”

Money is still coming in through individual donations, but thus far, close to $100,000 has been collected, with Holland and Knight promising to match up to that amount.

In addition, some of the firm’s Florida offices are gathering food and medical supplies to be shipped to Haiti through the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Food for the Poor.

“This is good for us. It makes us feel like we can do something. We wish we could be there,” said Ruth. “But we can certainly make ourselves felt there.”

Bar members aren’t the only ones contributing time and money to recovery projects. Florida law schools are also taking part by creating their own programs. FSU law student Salomon Laguerre worked with the Black Law Student Association, the Christian Legal Society, and Advocates for Immigrants and Refugee Rights to coordinate a food and supplies drive on campus in Tallahassee.

“When the earthquake hit, and I saw how bad the situation was down there, I was moved immediately to act,” said Laguerre. “I grew up as a child in Haiti, so this hit close to home. I figured, since it wasn’t possible for me to personally go down there immediately, I had to do what I can over here to help.”

Water, food, medical supplies, and hygiene items were collected and taken by Hope for Haiti. Plans for another collection at FSU are in the works.

University of Florida students also instituted Gators United for Haiti, a philanthropic project designed to motivate students to raise money for Haitian relief efforts. Law students contributed to the project by hosting “Donuts for Donations” and “Candy for Cash” fundraisers. After one week of collections, the UF organization collected over $12,000.

The tragedy inspired trial lawyer Spencer Aronfeld to take relief efforts to the next level by creating a nationwide nonprofit organization. The week after the earthquake, Aronfeld launched Lawyers to the Rescue, modeled after the Doctors Without Borders humanitarian organization.

“For doctors, there was an obvious immediate need,” said Aronfeld. “But as lawyers, I wondered, ‘What can we do?’”

Three thousand e-mails later, Aronfeld had garnered the support of both Florida lawyers and those outside the state. Industry professionals like forensic photographers and focus group coordinators volunteered money and services for a silent auction and fundraiser held in Coral Gables.

“We’ve collected nearly $6,000, and money is still coming in,” Aronfeld said. Local merchants donated free massages, gym memberships, and cooking lessons, making the first-ever Lawyers to the Rescue fundraiser a community-wide event. A happy hour and silent auction is already in the works for February 28, and the organization is planning a field trip for participating lawyers to visit and work in Haiti.

“We want to go down there and work on immigration applications,” said Aronfeld. “I’m not even an immigrations lawyer, but I can fill out a form.”

Lawyers to the Rescue is a nonpolitical organization for every licensed lawyer in the country. Membership is free, and for a reason: “Whatever money we collect needs to be given directly to the cause,” Aronfeld said. Other charitable works for additional organizations are in the planning stages.

For more information about Lawyers to the Rescue and their upcoming fundraising events, e-mail Aronfeld at [email protected]. A Web site for Lawyers to the Rescue is scheduled to go live on March 1.

Other ways you can help Haitian recovery:

• Haitian TPS Project of Central Florida and the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, [email protected].

• Neighbors to the Rescue, and 1-800-825-3786.

• Haitian Lawyers Association, and 305-731-2007, ext. 104.

• American Red Cross, and 1-800-RED-CROSS.

• Project Haiti with the University of Florida Medical School,

• Doctors Without Borders,

• Dade County Bar Immigration Law Committee, [email protected].

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