In the wake of recent natural disasters in California, the Clinical Education Program at Pepperdine University School of Law launched the Disaster Relief Clinic, which provides pro bono legal services to those harmed by wildfires in Southern California in 2018.
The clinic, which relies on volunteer lawyers and referrals for early phases of recovery, offers a variety of services to people in Malibu, the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. These include assistance on FEMA applications and appeals, insurance coverage matters, business interruption, housing and rental issues, estate matters, unemployment and consumer protection issues.
“The clinic was first launched to serve folks after Hurricane Harvey and the Thomas Fire, and now we get to serve our own people in our community,” says Jeffrey R. Baker, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Education at Pepperdine University School of Law.
The disaster clinic was inspired in 2005, when Baker was a young lawyer in his home state of Mississippi; Hurricane Katrina hit, forcing the evacuation of the southern half of the state. During this time, Baker volunteered his legal services while he and his community dealt with the devastation.
“My family and I were profoundly affected by our experience,” Baker recalls.
Then, almost a year ago, Hurricane Harvey hit South Texas.
“I wanted to find a way to see if we could reach out to help, drawing on my own experience with Hurricane Katrina, even though we live in California now,” he says. “We reached out to partners and friends from other legal aid agencies and asked how we could help… I thought that we would gain experience and learn the ropes and do some good with our friends in Texas and prepare ourselves for when this would become a local moment for us.”
That local moment hit in December 2017, when the Thomas Fire wreaked havoc throughout Ventura County.
“What we’re doing technically is called ‘limited scope representation,’ so we’re not getting involved in litigation,” Baker explains. “We’re helping people understand the system around FEMA and insurance… and helping people advocate for themselves and understand the scavenger hunt that can occur from a natural disaster.”
A big aspect of the Disaster Relief Clinic involves community education events in which volunteers with the program provide information and guidance to people affected by the fires. The most recent was the Day of Malibu Healing & Assistance in mid-December, which included yoga, meditation and acupuncture—as well as free legal counseling with representatives from the Pepperdine Law Disaster Relief Clinic.
The Disaster Relief Clinic is part of the clinical education program Baker oversees in which law students have the opportunity to practice various areas of the law while attending law school, essentially helping those who cannot afford legal services.
“This is an opportunity for students to practice with real clients under faculty supervision,” Baker explains. “So we’re providing a service while teaching students how to be excellent, ethical lawyers.”
He notes that the week immediately after the Woolsey fire in November, “We recruited volunteer lawyers around FEMA, insurance, housing… then we created a system where we could connect local people affected to our pool of lawyers who had a heart to serve.”
In only two weeks, 80 lawyers stepped up to volunteer their expertise, “and over the next six weeks, we connected 96 people to volunteer lawyers,” Baker says. “It was exhilarating and inspiring to see the turnout.”