In honor of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Trial Magazine has devoted part of its September issue to the American Association for Justice’s response to 9/11—specifically the formation of Trial Lawyers Care (TLC). TLC was formed in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks to get compensation for 9/11 victims and their families while recognizing that such an act of terrorism was murder, not negligence.
To this day, TLC is the largest pro bono effort in the history of American law, providing over 4,000 families with counsel from 1,100 volunteer trial lawyers and 876,000 hours of volunteer legal help.
Our own Larry Stewart, who served as president of AAJ (then known as ATLA) from 1994-1995, was instrumental in the massive effort to make TLC a reality.
The Creation of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund
In the hours after the attacks, the 19-member Executive Committee of the AAJ began discussing an organized response from the trial lawyer community to aid thousands of families who’d lost loved ones or been harmed. At the same time, committee members saw that the attacks were mass murder, not a result of negligence. To them, it was paramount to address the victims in a non-traditional, thoughtful, and patriotic manner.
Within 48 hours, the AAJ had issued a bold statement:
There would be no filing of civil lawsuits arising from the 9/11 attacks.
Rather than seeking relief from the airlines, the victims should be able to seek relief from a federal fund formed by Congress. This decision was unprecedented. AAJ policy up to that point had not supported federal sources of compensation for the victims of harm. However, unprecedented times called for unprecedented solutions.
Despite having no force of law, the moratorium was honored by plaintiffs lawyers nationwide.
Within days of issuing their statement, AAJ sent a delegation to discuss a compensation fund for 9/11 victims. AAJ staff were tasked with writing the legislation for it. Less than a week after the attacks, the AAJ had prepared a written proposal for a compensation fund that was debated and agreed upon by both parties in Congress.
The final agreement’s benefits included the following:
- Full tort-type damages for the victims without proof of liability required.
- No caps on damages.
- Prompt payment guaranteed from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
On September 21, the Senate approved the bill by a near-unanimous vote. AAJ lawyers worked around the clock to make the Victims Compensation Fund a reality. Within 60 hours of submitting the proposal, it was law. Now, it was a matter of ensuring that each claimant got what they needed from the fund.
“Attorneys of Mercy”
On Friday night, AAJ issued a call to its members nationwide asking for volunteers to serve as counsel. By Monday, hundreds of attorneys had replied—but the scope of the job was enormous. Trial Lawyers Care needed to address the needs of literally thousands of people who had suffered the worst tragedy, not only in their lives but in the nation’s history. What was being proposed would require unprecedented cooperation between lawyers, clerks, and legal staff on a national basis—“attorneys of mercy,” as MSNBC called us.
To head up the project, AAJ turned to Larry Stewart.
Larry and AAJ staff officially launched Trial Lawyers Care on September 24, less than two weeks after the attacks. Their task was to be “up and running” within three weeks.
“TLC had no offices, policies, budget, or staff. None of the officers or board members had ever run a pro bono program,” Larry writes. “The U.S. Department of Justice was beginning to formulate regulations to govern the compensation fund’s operation. Thousands of families were mired in overwhelming shock and grief, and some lawyers were beginning to solicit for-fee clients, claiming that victims who chose free legal services would ‘get what they pay for.’ Given these challenges, TLC’s organizers knew that complete success was the only option.”
Finding the Survivors & Paving the Path for Relief
Given that some lawyers were shameless soliciting for-pay clients related to 9/11, the TLC’s first significant task was letting survivors know that world-class free representation was available. This was no small feat. It required a great deal of resources with a ticking clock, as survivors only had two years to file a claim.
TLC started appearing at victims’ meetings, rallies, and other gatherings. They wrote and distributed literature in English, Spanish, and Chinese. They even published op-eds in the New York Times and other major papers.
At the same time, there needed to be regulations about how claims would be filed and compensation awarded. TLC took the lead in drafting proposed regulations to the Department of Justice in the first few weeks. Staff from TLC then negotiated the proposed regulations with the Department of Justice and Fund Special Master Kenneth Feinberg, who the Attorney General had appointed to manage the Victims Compensation Fund.
In those 2 years, TLC had attended over 200 meetings, given out 6,000 victim information packets, and notified the consulate of every nation that lost citizens on 9/11. At the same time, they ensured the DOJ’s regulations were true to the spirit of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund bill, which ended up benefiting every single claimant who came forward.
Speeding Toward the Deadline
In seemingly no time at all, the filing deadline—December 31, 2003—was fast approaching. In the final months, there were two tasks: recruit enough volunteer lawyers and intensify efforts to inform survivors. Those efforts were quickly validated. Nearly 50 Canadian ironworkers near Montreal had been injured while helping with 9/11 rescue efforts and had only heard about the program at the last minute. TLC organized Canadian attorneys to ensure those claims were handled.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, TLC stayed open through the night to ensure every claim was filed by the deadline. Volunteers were deployed in 2004 to conclude representation and establish structured payouts for claimants.
By 2005, the program was concluded.
Thanks to Larry’s tireless work and the work of hundreds of others, TLC was able to help thousands of claimants seek relief from the Victims Compensation Fund at zero cost to the victims, with lawyers volunteering $200,000 worth of legal counsel per case on average. Despite claims that clients would “get what they pay for” from volunteer representation, TLC attorneys won an average of $500,000 more than their for-fee counterparts.
These advocates weren’t just generous—they were effective.
In 2004, Fund Special Master Kenneth Feinberg sent a private letter to Larry taking stock of what the TLC had accomplished. He writes:
“Larry, nobody—and I mean nobody—was more instrumental in making 9/11 compensation a reality. You proved to be ‘a national resource,’ and the Nation owes you its appreciation and respect.”
What TLC accomplished was and is one of the most remarkable legal efforts in the history of the United States. It remains not only one of Larry’s most outstanding achievements but one of the greatest achievements ever undertaken in the name of legal advocacy.