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Disaster plan helps Rhode Island bar respond to nightclub fire
(Article first appeared in Bar Leader Magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association.)

By Clifton Barnes

Wildfires in California, hurricanes in North Carolina, tornadoes in Missouri. Unfortunately, it’s gonna happen. Your state will experience a disaster. It wasn’t a natural disaster, however, that tested in the Rhode Island Bar Association on a chilly night last February.

A nightclub fire in West Warwick erupted during a band’s pyrotechnic display, killing 100 and injuring 200 more to become one of the deadliest fires in a social setting in U.S. history.

The next month the first lawsuit was filed, but the Rhode Island Bar Association focused its attention on the immediate needs of the victims. “There were kids without moms and dads,” said Fred Massie, director of communications for the Rhode Island Bar Association. “There were spouses who had no way to pay mortgages.”

Massie said that in a small state like Rhode Island, disasters hit everyone. “The emotional impact was enormous,” Massie said. “Fortunately, we had a disaster response plan in place.”

Even before the bar could activate its plan, some member attorneys were calling offering their services. On top of the attorneys already in the bar’s volunteer lawyer program, another 150 volunteered their services.

The bar staff fielded questions and referred appropriate attorneys to them. “We didn’t want questions about potential lawsuits,” Massie said. Volunteers were counseled not to accept clients.

In announcing the efforts to bar members through e-mail, Rhode Island Bar Association President Michael A. St. Pierre wrote, “I am reminded that in times of emergency, it is particularly important for all of us to remember, and live by, our Rules of Professional Conduct and to behave in a manner that brings honor and respect to our profession.”

At least one attorney came in almost immediately soliciting client victims. “Instead of taking the tact that lawyers deserve to make a living,” Massie said, “we said that it is morally reprehensible to immediately start soliciting these people after such a tragedy.”

So, the bar sent out a news release offering sympathy and offering pro bono help to victims in dealing with “legal issues requiring immediate assistance including, but not limited to, health care, probate and social security.”

In addition, the bar sent out letters to the editor throughout the state telling people that they certainly have a right to file a lawsuit but there was no rush. “There were people telling them that they needed to file suit now,” Massie said, noting a three-year statute of limitations.

However, timeliness was a key to getting attention from the media and thus getting the word out to the public. The first news release literally came out when the fire was still hot. As soon as word got out that a lawyer was soliciting business from victims, more contact was made with the public through the news media.

The Rhode Island Bar Association partnered with the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association to send out a joint release fully explaining why victims did not need to rush to file a lawsuit. The bar also partnered with the governor (through his legal counsel) who got out the word out about the bar’s efforts at news conferences and on the government’s Web site. This all led to opportunities for the bar to speak through the media.

In addition to state print and electronic news media, the bar responded to national media inquiries from NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, The Boston Herald, New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, National Public Radio, USA Today and the Associated Press.

While it certainly wasn’t a PR move, St. Pierre said the efforts showed lawyers and the association in a positive light. “The events compelled action and we took it,” St. Pierre said. “We provided a very valuable resource to those effected, and I would submit, that our actions were recognized as such.”

Of course some members of the media were looking for blame and wanted the bar to speak to specific legal issues emerging from what was an even more high-profile tragedy than it might have been. You see, a TV news crew was actually on-site filming a report on nightclub safety. Just three days earlier, 21 people died in a Chicago nightclub after the use of pepper spray to break up a fight touched off a stampede.

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While bar leaders were able to help the media sort through the legal issues involved, they were careful to know the facts first. “Personally, I am a trial lawyer predominantly representing plaintiffs,” St. Pierre said, “but as the bar president, I had to be ever vigilant to not allow my personal practice to interfere with my duties as the head of an integrated bar that necessarily consists of lawyers that would be on all sides of the issues presented.”

Massie said members of the bar are expressing pride in what the association did, and is still doing. Volunteers continue to respond to new requests from the victims and their families for legal assistance primarily related to family law matters.

“I cannot think of anything that we might have done differently,” Massie said. “This is not to say that we can't improve, but given this particular tragedy, I believe the Rhode Island Bar Association did the right things at the right times.”

The bar revamped its disaster plan just three years ago. Massie did say that the bar plans to develop a stable of Bar Association-connected attorneys who are experienced and knowledgeable on specific areas of the law (for example: civil, criminal, workers' compensation, tax) and who will volunteer to serve as back-ups to officers during times of crisis.

Massie said the success of the efforts rests on the shoulders of past and present bar leaders who showed foresight in “creating the disaster response plan well before it was needed; establishing an organizational structure that allowed an appropriate, professional and well-functioning response to victim needs and media requests; and rising to the challenges of the occasion with intelligence and compassion.”

Meanwhile, St. Pierre pointed to the support of bar staffers including Massie, Executive Director Helen McDonald and Public Services Director Susan Fontaine.

Through the Public Service Department, particularly through its Volunteer Lawyer Program and Lawyer Referral Service, and supported by the outpouring of volunteer offers, the RIBA had the experience and resources to respond appropriately to the disaster.

Having a basic disaster/crisis response plan is essential for any bar association, Massie said. “While it may not be completely fleshed out, the foundation must be in place,” he said. “There could be nothing worse for the association and its members than to be caught flat-footed when disaster strikes. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Clifton Barnes, who was director of communications of the N.C. Bar Association from 1987-2002, is a regular contributing writer to the American Bar Association's Bar Leader Magazine.