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December 23, 2013 Articles

Women Helping Women End Domestic Violence

By Mary Frances Palisano and Michele C. Lefkowitz

More than 70,000 domestic violence cases are reported annually in New Jersey. Many of these individuals, mostly women, have urgent legal needs and are often in violent situations where their safety, and the safety of their children, is at stake. Although the domestic violence law in our state is favorable to victims, many are not aware of their rights. Without counsel, they do not know how to access the legal system for their benefit. Unsurprisingly, there is an enormous need for attorneys in the area of domestic violence. Many women, however, are not represented because they cannot afford an attorney, and there are not enough pro bono attorneys undertaking these types of cases.

Recognizing the need for indigent women to have legal representation in domestic violence cases, Gibbons P.C., in a joint effort between its Women’s Initiative and its Pro Bono Committee, reached out to Partners For Women and Justice to work together to promote the interests of women through the Domestic Violence Pro Bono Program, itself a joint effort by Partners and the Rachel Coalition. Partners’ mission is to empower low-income and abused women to build safe and secure futures for themselves and their children by providing equal access to justice. Partners serves its clients through the work of its dedicated legal staff and the efforts of more than 200 pro bono attorneys who participate in the DV Pro Bono Program. Together, Rachel and Partners recruit, train, and mentor attorneys interested in helping victims of domestic violence achieve safety for themselves and their children. Since the program was established in 2005, volunteer attorneys have handled more than 1,000 cases on behalf of victims of domestic violence.

Through Gibbons’s participation in the DV Pro Bono Program, not only are women in need receiving quality legal representation, but the collaboration provides the attorneys involved with tremendous satisfaction from helping those in need. Gibbons volunteer attorneys represent victims of domestic violence in final restraining order cases, which are structured like bench trials, but are resolved on a far more expedited basis. Partners provides training, one-on-one mentoring, and logistical support to the volunteers throughout the process. For each case, Partners performs a thorough intake, conducts the initial fact and evidence gathering, screens the cases for merit, and matches cases with attorneys based on experience and availability. The average time commitment per case is only 8–15 hours. The end result of the DV Pro Bono Program is to give women representation and counsel so they can obtain the security they and their children so desperately need to escape abusive situations effectively.

Beyond the tremendous satisfaction that comes from handling a pro bono case for someone in need, attorneys who handle pro bono cases may benefit in ways that may not seem readily apparent, including:

Professional Development. Pro Bono work is an opportunity to develop legal skills outside of your daily practice. For example, less experienced attorneys have an opportunity to go into court and conduct a trial on their own early in their careers, and more seasoned attorneys can expand their legal expertise. Many of the skills learned through pro bono work are transferrable to other aspects of your practice. Building confidence in the courtroom and learning to think on your feet will benefit any attorney regardless of practice.

Case Management Skills. Many associates do not have opportunities to manage and run their own file. Pro Bono work provides valuable case management and organizational skills.

Business Development. Pro Bono work can help raise your visibility in the legal community, expand your network of contacts, and may develop into future referrals from other pro bono attorneys or members of the bar that you may not have otherwise met.

Building Professional Relationships. Attorneys may work on a pro bono case with a colleague or develop a mentor relationship through their pro bono work.

Recruitment. Institutional support for pro bono work reaps tangible benefits for the law firms as well. Law firms receive favorable publicity for doing pro bono work that attracts quality attorneys to the firm.

Jennifer Marino Thibodaux, an associate at Gibbons, discusses one of her pro bono experiences:

I felt personally fulfilled by making a difference in the life of an abused woman (and her children) who suffered unthinkable physical and emotional violence at the hands of a family member. The attorneys and staff at Partners guided me every step of the way, starting with the well-organized, informative training session accompanied by written materials. Aside from helping a victim of domestic violence secure her freedom from abuse, I learned a new area of the law and was able to develop valuable trial skills that will transfer to any litigator’s practice.

In sum, if you can find a cause that you feel strongly about and the right pro bono partner, the experience can be wonderfully meaningful for you and life changing for your client.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, pro bono, domestic violence, abused women, restraining order