Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University
This Month @ Moritz

William B. Leahy '68: A Helping Hand for Katrina Victims

Bill and Darlene
Bill and his wife, Darlene, at Christmas

Bill Leahy takes to heart the old adage "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." When the veteran Cleveland trial lawyer heard of a program providing free legal help for victims of Hurricane Katrina, he volunteered to help wherever he was most needed. In early December Bill journeyed to the Mississippi coast where he provided desperately needed legal help to one of the storm's hardest-hit communities.

He got the idea at a Moritz College of Law reception in Cleveland when Dean Nancy Rogers talked about the Mississippi Bar's Disaster Legal Assistance Program. Plus he had another reason for the trip – his daughter lives in Jackson, and he appreciates the kindness and Southern hospitality shown to her by the people of Mississippi.

Bill was stationed in Waveland, Mississippi, a small town along the state's Gulf Coast that Katrina nearly wiped off the map. A lone desk in a FEMA disaster relief center (actually a converted skating rink) served as his office. Though many worked at the center providing other kinds of assistance, Bill was the sole provider of legal help, dispensing advice and directing people to additional services – their first steps on a long road to recovery.

The Disaster Legal Assistance Program, which is coordinated by the Young Lawyers Division of the Mississippi Bar, has been assisting Katrina victims since early September, immediately after disaster struck. According to the organization, over 5,800 people have received legal assistance through the program. Around 600 attorneys have volunteered, approximately half serving on-site at FEMA disaster relief centers throughout the region and half giving guidance over the telephone.

Volunteer attorneys from out of state were specially admitted to practice under a Mississippi Supreme Court Order to provide pro bono legal assistance to disaster victims. To prepare volunteers, the Young Lawyers Division held training sessions where law professors and local attorneys provided a crash course in areas of Mississippi law on which volunteers would be advising, primarily landlord-tenant, real property, mortgage, and insurance issues.

It was a profoundly moving experience for Bill, viewing firsthand the complete and utter devastation of the area: residences leveled, hotels completely or partially destroyed, bridges and highways stacked up like decks of cards, FEMA trailer camps, deserted beaches. He likens the scene to bombed-out Berlin after World War II.

The need for support remains strong, and Bill has no doubt it will continue for a long time. He expresses concern that the general public may become apathetic. "It's like a situation where a loved one passes away and people bring casseroles and well wishes. After a couple of weeks they forget about it," he says.

There was a bright side to Bill's trip south. For a few days before and after his assignment at the disaster relief center he was able to spend time with his daughter's family in Jackson. This family time lightened his spirits, especially moments with his pride and joy, granddaughter Lily.

Serving at the front line of a natural disaster leaves a deeper appreciation for what is most important in life: family, friends, and a sense of purpose. Bill's voice rings with pride when he talks about his wife, Darlene, and their four grown children. After four years as a captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps and 30 years as a trial lawyer with Thompson Hine, at a point where many would choose retirement, Bill joined the firm of Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs. He's as enthusiastic about his work now as he was at the start of his distinguished career. "I'm one of those lucky few who has an exciting job that's new every day," he says.

Besides his principal practice as a trial lawyer, he is also a mediator for private and court-ordered mediations, and he teaches pre-trial practice to third-year law students at Case Western Reserve Law School. "There are few experiences in life that are more fun than spending a couple hours with bright law students," he says.

Bill is confident that Waveland will come back due to the sheer determination and strength of the people who call the area home. He wants to make sure people realize that while things are improving, the situation is still dire and assistance of all kinds is needed. He urges all of us to figure out a way to help, whether through pro bono legal work or otherwise. "The people there are fantastic. They are not looking for sympathy or pity, just help."