FEMA for Lawyers?

I’ve been kicking an idea around for about a week, and it’s time to write it down and get more input.

The sprint before the marathon

Since the Muslim Ban Executive Order on January 27, lawyers all over the country have mobilized in large numbers to help immigrants and their families at airports. They’ve filed numerous cases seeking to free detainees, some of which will certainly find their way into law school textbooks. These lawyers, and the hundreds of volunteers who spontaneously came forward to support them, mobilized very quickly in response to an action that came unannounced. It’s been quite the sprint.

But you can’t sprint for four years.

Although we may not be able to predict exactly what’s coming next, we can be reasonably sure this isn’t the last mobilization we’ll see in the coming months and years. Indeed, we may already be seeing the beginning of next wave, with reports of significant ICE raids in Southern California. These may or may not be the first breakers in a wave of promised mass deportations.

Either way, now that we’re through the first sprint, we need to start planning for the marathon ahead.

But first, some observations from the past two weeks.

What we saw, what we learned


Responding organizations — which range from large national groups like the ACLU down to small local community legal aid organizations — came together immediately, and have been working closely ever since. When I’ve asked how this happened and worked out, the answers have largely been that they already knew each other and had relationships in place. Eventually, things got more integrated. In California, for example, OneJustice took the lead in coordinating efforts at SFO and LAX.

Still, there was a lot of duplicated effort. Since so many people wanted to help (a good thing!), everyone put together their own lists of resources. Some groups consolidated their information and resources; others decentralized more. Good Samaritans came together to connect needs and resources, like the  people behind the @HelpTheLawyers Twitter account. New organizations like Lawyers for Good Government had their first major mobilizations.

Collaboration worked out reasonably well this time, but I worry it may not in the next crisis, especially if the reponsing organizations aren’t already acquainted.


The tools airport lawyers have been using are extremely diverse. They include Google Docs and Groups, Facebook, Signal, Twitter, Slack, forms, websites, email (of course!), couriers wading through crowds of protesters (I did this), and who-knows-what-else. Some tools were implemented with more forethought than others, and, understandably, security often took a back seat to expediency. Again, there was a lot of duplication.


After talking with staff at a few of the legal aid organizations that have been responding to the Muslim Ban Executive Order, and asking them what the technology community can do to help, one common thread has been help with security. While I’ve done some recent writing at Lawyerist on this subject, these organizations need more than articles and FAQs. They need someone who can sit down with them in their office, follow them to the airports and to their other clients, and develop a deep understanding of their work — and then help make choices about what tools and processes to use to stay safe and secure.

What to do next

In thinking about how to improve things over the medium and long term, I zoomed out and thought more generally about crisis response, and thought about FEMA. While it certainly has problems, FEMA serves a useful function. It’s a source of emergency response best practices, training, equipment, and organizational capacity. It has playbooks for all kinds of scenarios.

To get through the next four years, maybe we need FEMA for lawyers: an organization to help our many great legal aid organization with logistical, security,technology, and other support.

Here’s what I see this organization doing:

  • Accumulate what’s been learned over the last two weeks, and try to assimilate the knowledge that’s currently locked up in people’s heads across the diverse spectrum of legal aid organizations. Boil all that down to some simple do/don’t lists and best practices for legal emergency response.
  • Do scenario planning. Build playbooks for how to respond to different contingencies. Be prepared before it happens.
  • Build relationships. Many legal aid organizations already have great relationships with adjacent activist groups, local governments, and others — but more can be done.
  • Develop and help implement security best practices to keep legal aid workers safe and their information secure. (One simple example: bulk order and distribute U2F keys to every legal aid organization staff member.)
  • If technology can solve legal aid needs, get it to organizations and help them implement it. If it doesn’t exist yet, build it.

What do you think? Pipe up in the comments!

Author: Ansel Halliburton

Ansel Halliburton is a lawyer specializing in entrepreneurship and intellectual property litigation.

One thought on “FEMA for Lawyers?”

  1. I’ve been trying to figure out how to help with an effort to do this – assemble knowledge and have it accessible for attorneys for the next crisis! Do you have individuals who are interested in forming such an organization (or a less formal way – maybe just a website and social media presence)? I would be happy to be involved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s