11/05/2001 at 01:00 AM EST
As a fifth-year associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a prestigious Manhattan law firm, litigator Jackie Haberfeld usually earns $385 an hour playing hardball in court. Yet when the call went out for lawyers to donate their services to those bereaved by the World Trade Center attack, "she literally ran out of her office," says fiancé Hal Biagas, 37, also an attorney. Explains Haberfeld, 39: "I'm not a rescue worker, a welder or a doctor. But people needed help."
Since Sept. 26 she has averaged 30 hours a week in a makeshift office at a Hudson River pier helping families obtain death certificates—a process that can take three years if a body is missing—in just a few days. (Haberfeld's company continues to pay her base salary.) The paperwork, free of charge, is essential to settling wills and insurance claims, but many clients need more than legal guidance. "Sometimes they just want you to sit and listen," says Haberfeld. "You're a psychologist, a social worker and a human being."
It was Haberfeld's humanity even more than her legal expertise that impressed Joe Tiesi, whose sister Mary Ellen, 38, was an insurance broker in the South Tower. "She said she had been drawn to Mary Ellen's face [from a photo]," says Tiesi, 42, a comptroller for a Fortune 500 corporation. "Which made us feel like she knew us." When the weight of people's woe becomes heavy, Haberfeld says, she is buoyed by the presence of other volunteers: "It makes you feel that the fabric of society is so tightly knit, no one should ever fall through again."