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The Legal Aftermath of 9/11: Part 1

The Legal Aftermath of 9/11, Part 1

ON THE MORNING OF September 11, 2001, Victoria Bjorklund '83 watched the Twin Towers burn as she stood at a window in the office of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. Even as she peered out at the devastation, she knew that the Exempt Organizations Group she heads was in a unique position to help. The first call came the next day, from a client that had lost 13 employees who were gathered from around the world for a breakfast meeting at Windows on the World when the North Tower collapsed. The company's desire to help the families raised questions regarding charitable class, among other legal issues.

"With all the uncertainties, people were either paralyzed and unable to do anything, or they moved boldly," recalls Ms. Bjorklund. "We advised clients to do the latter. We would apply our knowledge of the current state of the law, act based on where we thought the law should go, and focus our energy on getting the law to go there."

Others throughout the legal community also chose to respond to the tragedy decisively. Following are highlights of the work of just some of the many Law School alumni in the nearly four years since the attacks.

THE FACILITATORS

After the attacks, victims and their families needed immediate help. As senior vice president and general counsel for the Greater New York Hospital Association, Susan C. Waltman '77 was on the front lines as survivors and families of victims dealt with the initial need for emergency care and information. After she arrived at her Midtown office on September 11, the mayor's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) asked her to dispatch a staff member to the Emergency Opera-tions Center, known as "The Bunker," at 7 World Trade Center. After hearing that the South Tower of the WTC had also been hit by a plane, she tried calling her representative, but the lines were down. After many failed attempts to get through to the bunker to assess the situation, Ms. Waltman contacted city hospitals. The message: activate your emergency plans. It was not yet 9:30 a.m.

Ms. Waltman helped coordinate hundreds of hospital emergency plans, worked closely with the OEM, now moved to the NYC Police Academy, to determine what resources hospitals needed, and set up a hotline for people searching for missing family members. Two weeks after the attack, she launched a seminar on biological and chemical attacks for physicians. Two weeks after that, anthrax was being mailed to news agencies and government officials.

"Lawyers are trained to be problem solvers," Ms. Waltman told the National Law Journal. "A well-trained lawyer can solve problems no matter what the area."

Efforts to meet the profound demand for financial aid came almost instantaneously, with the estab-lishment of the September 11th Fund on the day of the terrorist attacks. The fund was created by The New York Community Trust and United Way of New York City as a way to meet both immediate and long-term needs. Chaired by Franklin A. Thomas '63, the fund helped tens of thousands of people with grants totaling $534 million, collected from more than two million donors.
 Mr. Thomas, former president of the Ford Foundation, told the Daily News, "The fund invented new ways of helping people that hopefully will become models for coordinated assistance in the future."

In a rare exception for a charitable organization, administrative expenses were not taken from do-nations. The fund provided aid to more than 3,600 family members of those killed on 9/11, gave job training and counseling to 11,400 people who worked in Lower Manhattan, and assisted more than 7,500 displaced residents. It ended its work in December 2004.

Evan Davis '69, then president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, galvanized the pro bono efforts of firms and lawyers throughout the city. Michael Hertz '88, founder of ProBono.net - a nonprofit dedicated to developing online resources to support pro bono practice - worked closely with Mr. Davis and the city bar association to provide training and technology to lawyers volunteering their time to help. More than 2,800 lawyers registered on the ProBono.net 9/11 web site to gain information and resources, and more than 800 lawyers took a three-hour facilitator training course.

The outpouring of support required a different approach to the usual provision of pro bono services.

"Traditionally, you'd take on one of many problems a client might face, while other issues would be referred to different lawyers," Mr. Hertz explains. "We knew that model wasn't appropriate here. Families that lost loved ones needed one contact to facilitate the process and be their ombudsman throughout the myriad challenges they would face legally - many of which we could not predict."
 Ms. Bjorklund agrees that 9/11 took the law into uncharted territory. With victims encompassing "a huge economic spectrum, from security guards to securities executives," she says determination of need became a key issue.

 "The charities were confused, with good reason, because the law was not clear as of September 11, 2001," says Ms. Bjorklund, who was then chair of the ABA Tax Section Committee on Exempt Organizations. She and others at Simpson Thacher sought and achieved relaxation of the IRS needs-determination standards.

Another victory was won on behalf of businesses in Lower Manhattan that faced severe economic hardship. 

"I had difficulty convincing any charities' officials that such aid was legally permissible," she says.

Ultimately, the IRS granted an exclusion for certain grants to small businesses affected by the disaster. The IRS also fast-forwarded its schedule for ruling on tax-exempt status, deciding on ap-plications within three days instead of three months of submission.

Ms. Bjorklund won numerous accolades for her 9/11 work, including ABA Tax Section "Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year." Simpson Thacher was also named "Pro Bono Firm of the Year" by the New York State Bar Association.