It's not only Rihanna and Chris: Purposeful Representation of your Domestic Violence Clients - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Leslie Ragsdale

Celebrity singers Rihanna and Chris Brown have recently made headlines due to Chris Brown's alleged assault on his girlfriend, Rihanna. Commentators ponder if Rihanna will make-up with Chris or resist and serve as a role-model for the many girls who look up to her.  Rihanna is young, attractive, successful, and financially independent; not the sort of domestic violence victim that people envision. The stereo-typical victim; uneducated, impoverished, and rural, only applies to a portion of domestic violence victims. Domestic violence is a non-discriminating crime. It affects all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence has collected statistics on incidents of abuse by different populations in the United States. Those statistics are available at and clearly portray the diversity of victims.

With approximately 1.3 million women and 835, 000 men assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States, some of them are probably your clients. 1 Whether your focus is family law or real estate law, this is a world-wide problem and you need to know how to help those who have suffered from it.

Domestic violence (DV) victims have endured unfavorable conditions, sometimes for decades. Do not consider these clients weaker than other clients. They are survivors. Taking the time to understand their experiences will enhance your relationship with your DV clients, resulting in better outcomes, more referrals, and possibly a lifelong impact on your client. Your client may be leaving an abusive relationship or you may have noticed that your client is intimidated by his or her partner, which could indicate abuse. Consider the following reminders and how they may affect your attorney-client relationship.

Be Patient
Many attorneys are goal-oriented, decisive, and overly scheduled. Even if you were not born that way, you were probably forced into it by law school, your caseload, quotas, deadlines, and court appearances. Attorneys want resolute decisions from our clients so we can act upon them. We desire certainty and we want it quickly.

HOWEVER , most victims of Domestic Violence are not in a position to act quickly and definitively. You may be meeting with the client shortly after an argument or assault. The client may be in a state of shock, not able to perform seemingly routine functions. Keep in mind that your client is trying to make multi-faceted decisions, decisions that will affect the entire family, including extended family. The decisions to get an Order of Protection, request child support, or request supervised visitation could deprive the client of relationships with friends and family. Such action could result in job loss for either party. Alternatively, not requesting needed protection and resources could result in further violence, the inability to obtain safe housing, and difficulty paying bills. These are tough, life-changing decisions. Be patient.

Do Not Be Too Bossy
Domestic Violence is an attempt to gain control and may or may not include physical violence. Emotional, psychological, monetary abuse, and stalking may not involve any touching. However, these forms of abuse all involve control. Most victims have endured controlling behaviors for years and cannot quickly deviate from its effects.

A victim may be easily swayed by the attorney and the attorney's subconscious behaviors. Behaviors such as leaning forward, pounding on the desk, holding eye contact, or speaking dismissively could signal dominance and push the client to agree to something that is not in his or her best interest.

Victims may act out toward their attorneys, rebelling against what they interpret as controlling behavior. Be conscious of the reason behind such behavior. If you need to discuss it with your client, do it politely and in a non-threatening manner. Calmly explain that you do not appreciate it and that it is not productive. Consider preemptively discussing expectations for you and for the client at your initial appointment. The bottom line is to BE AWARE of the role that control may play in your attorney-client relationship.

Respect The Client's Tough Decision To Stay
People assume that the abuse must not have been too bad if the victim stayed in the abusive relationship. Or, they believe that the victim is equally at fault for staying. This assumption is common, but erroneous. Victims may stay because they were taught that divorce is wrong. Others stay so that their children can have two parents living together. Victims may have been told many times that they would be helpless without their abuser, and they learn to believe it.  Some would be homeless if they left. Abusers may promise their partner to be better behaved or to seek help.

If you were in a relationship for years and your partner made a bad choice, such as driving drunk, would you leave? Many stay, even though the choice could have been fatal. People stay because they assume it will not happen again or that it is a common problem. Victims may feel the same way. We love our partners, flaws included. Acknowledge that the victim's decision to leave the abuser or stay is tough, and do not judge your client for trying to do the right thing, trying to make it work, or believing partner's lies.

Lack of communication is a common client complaint. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Responsibility require attorneys to keep clients reasonably informed of the status of their case and to promptly respond to requests for information. 2 Victims may be concerned that you have forgotten about their case or do not regard it as important. These clients have been told, verbally or nonverbally, that they are not valued and that nobody will believe them if they tell the truth. From the initial appointment with your client, explain that you will not always be immediately available. Notify the client of the best way to get in touch with you and how quickly you will usually be able to respond. Make all efforts to keep your client informed about the case and to address all concerns.

You have a unique opportunity to empower this client. Acknowledge that your client knows more about the circumstances than you do. For each decision, present all options and explain the pros and cons.  Allow time to make the decision when it is possible. Clarify that the final decision belongs to the client.

Be Ready To Defend Their DV-Related Mental Health Issues
Abusers often accuse their victims of being "crazy" or having mental and emotional problems. Victims often fear that something is wrong with them and may suffer from depression or anxiety disorders as a result of their abuse. The American Psychiatric Association has recognized these and other effects on mental health stemming from domestic violence, including panic attacks, substance abuse, and posttraumatic stress disorder. 3 Be prepared to explain why your client meets with a mental health professional or takes medication for abuse-related disorders. Emphasize that therapy is a healthy, proactive step for victims.

Lead Them To Other Resources
While you do not have time to address all of your client's concerns, you can direct your client to the proper resources. Provide applicable brochures in your office. Mention counseling services or work placement services that you think would be helpful for your client. Do not assume that your client is informed about available community resources.

Your local Domestic Violence agency is a great place to start.  Provide the phone number and encouragement to call.  Keep a handbook of your community's resources and designate someone in your office to become familiar with them. United Way provides a list of agencies and churches that may help.  Visit their website at and enter your zip code to research available assistance.

Think Ahead
If you are helping your client in a court action against the abuser, be aware of how your client will feel in court. If your court has a communal waiting room, consider asking for a private meeting room or separating the parties as much as possible. If you are conducting a direct examination in the courtroom, try to block your client's view of the abuser to prevent potential intimidation by the abuser. Be aware of the abuser's family members as well. Do not give them an opportunity to threaten your client.

Learn Purposefully
As young lawyers, we constantly learn new law and procedure. What we learn now will become habit as we continue to practice law. Take time to adopt thoughtful and purposeful habits regarding the ways we deal with clients. To us, their case is one of many. To them, their case is their world. Proceed with care.

1Patricia Tjaden & Nancy Thoennes, Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, at iv (2000), (available at
2 ABA Model R. of Prof. Resp. Rule 1.4 (ABA 2008) (available at
3 American Psychiatric Association, Let's Talk Facts About Domestic Violence. (2005) (available at


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About the Author

Leslie Ragsdale is an Attorney for South Carolina Legal Services.

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