In December 2002, Pro Bono Net welcomed Sharmila Shah to its staff as the Coordinator of our September 11th Web site, www.probono.net/September11. This is a one-year position funded through the generosity of The September 11th Fund. Legal professionals throughout the community are quietly continuing to help victims of the tragedy put their lives back together, and the Coordinatorís task is to ensure that the resources on the site are as comprehensive, accurate, and responsive as possible to the needs of these advocates. Sharmila is from Long Island and received her J.D. from Howard University. I asked Sharmila, who participated in the World Trade Center Permanency Project before coming to Pro Bono Net, to talk to Pro Bono Net News about her experiences connected with September 11th.
What attracted you to the position of 9/11 Coordinator?
The work I had already done with 9/11 victims through the WTC Permanency Project really felt good, emotionally, even though it was often sad and difficult. When the grant covering my work there ended, I wanted, if possible, to continue being involved.
Tell us a little about that work.
The WTC Project was initially set up for 9/11 victims who needed help with custody and guardianship issues for children who had lost a parent or guardian in the attack. I was an attorney with the Adoption Institute and I was familiar with those issues, so I joined the Project. It was very, very hard listening to the many stories that the clients told, each one unique. Social services staff often became emotionally debilitated themselves, coming back from home visits where the clients played answering machine messages over and over in order to hear the voices of people they had lost.
What do you hope to accomplish at Pro Bono Net over the next 12 months?
Probono.net/september11 is a great, great concept that has helped so many people connected with 9/11. But the sheer scope of the response was overwhelming and there just wasnít time to cover every last topic and bit of information when it was first created. So, my aim this year is to fill in those remaining gaps. My ultimate goal is to leave the site in such a way that, at the end of the year, every single person who needs legal assistance in connection with 9/11 will find a resource on the site, and every single attorney who is working with a 9/11 client will be able to get exactly what he or she needs to help that client.
Is there still a substantial continuing need?
Oh, yes. I know that Trial Lawyers Care, which is representing clients who need to submit a claim to the Victimís Compensation Fund, said they donít have enough staff to meet the need for help. Those claims can be very intimidating to fill out and submit, and Iím working on getting information about how to do that up onto the site right now.
How do you view attitudes toward pro bono work since 9/11?
I think lots of lawyers who had maybe avoided pro bono work in the past came forward for this and were pleasantly surprised, and also had their interest piqued. Itís so different from corporate work. Also, clients at first didnít understand what pro bono meant, and were afraid they were getting help from people who werenít really lawyers, or werenít good lawyers. They were awed and thrilled when they realized the calibre of the people who wanted to help them for free.
Do you feel that your work with 9/11 issues has changed you in any way?
Not so much changed me as opened me more to other peopleís humanity. I felt less cynical as I saw people pitching in and willing to be made uncomfortable or upset in order to get done what needed to be done to help victims. Iím hoping that those feelings wonít be diluted over time.
We feel fortunate to have Sharmila on hand to work on www.probono.net/september11 and assist everyone involved in the unprecedented 9/11 legal relief effort.
Manager of Development