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November 15, 2019 Feature

Pamela Wexler Wins 2019 Jean Crowe Pro Bono Award

Shani Adess & Amira Samuel

It is also curious that Respondent’s counsel [Pam Wexler] claims to be of “volunteer” status, thereby pro bono, but has nevertheless invested hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours over a period of years for allegedly no compensation . . . . This would defy the belief of any reasonable person.

This is a direct quote from an appellant’s brief filed by a pro se litigant in a case where Pam Wexler had represented the opposing party in protracted four-year proceedings that included litigation in New York’s Supreme Court. It perhaps best sums up the astonishing, selfless contributions that Pam has made by devoting over 4,180 hours to serving survivors of intimate partner violence as a volunteer attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a nonprofit providing free civil legal services to New Yorkers with low-income.

Pam joined NYLAG as a volunteer attorney in 2014 after retiring from corporate law practice. She had been eager to utilize the expertise she developed over her career to provide representation to survivors of intimate partner violence who otherwise might not have access to legal counsel. Pam found the opportunity to do that in Project Eden, a project through NYLAG that provides free legal representation to survivors within the Orthodox Jewish community.

Pam has represented Orthodox survivors in contested matrimonial actions, advocating in both civil and religious tribunals. The work has involved filing motions, conducting oral argument, and engaging in intensive discovery to obtain the full rights afforded her clients under New York State law—and then speaking with religious leaders, religious tribunals, and members of the community to ensure that her clients can obtain religious divorces. An inability to obtain a religious divorce may render a woman an “agunah,” which in Hebrew means one who is “anchored” or “chained.” Orthodox Jews do not consider an agunah divorced even if she has obtained a civil divorce, and she is, in effect, is chained to her abuser forever.

It is Pam’s compassion that enables her to do this work successfully. Her kindness, willingness to listen, and capacity for empathy makes her an extraordinary advocate. It enables her to connect and build trusting relationships with her clients, who come from communities that stigmatize engagement with outside civil systems, reporting to the police, and separating from an abusive partner.

Pam’s enthusiasm and passion are without measure. She uplifts her colleagues, serving as a constant source of positivity and support to all those who work with her. Pam is a champion for her clients and for her colleagues, and we are grateful that her extraordinary contributions to this field are being recognized by the 2019 Family Law Section Jean Crowe Pro Bono Award.

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Shani Adess

Shani Adess is the associate director of NYLAG’s Domestic Violence Law Unit.

Amira Samuel

Amira Samuel, now interim attorney for the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, was previously a supervising attorney for NYLAG.