- One of the single most important factors in determining whether a survivor escapes domestic abuse is access to civil legal services.
My legal world (and comfort zone) exists primarily outside a courtroom in a commercial transactions practice. However, many of the most meaningful and impactful experiences in my career occurred while working alongside other lawyers in domestic violence pro bono cases. I did not know about domestic violence issues when I agreed to take on my first pro bono order of protection. Although I still feel sick every time I have a court hearing or a public speaking engagement, the opportunity to be a part of something greater than myself usually outweighs the discomfort inherent in doing something worthwhile.
Domestic violence is a complex issue. It takes a network of programs to prevent violence and help survivors get away from a violent situation. One of the single most important factors in determining whether a survivor escapes domestic abuse is access to civil legal services. Studies show that representation by a lawyer means more protection for victims and their children, including through legal needs such as protection orders, divorce, child custody, and child support.
In 2018, a young woman changed the way that I view the world and my work. The woman was dealing with a diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer while at the same time trying to free herself from a dangerous living situation. Our local Montana Legal Services Association contacted a first-year associate in our office and assisted her on a pro bono basis. Soon, I became one of at least 10 lawyers of all ages, experience levels, and practice areas that had an opportunity to be a part of something larger than ourselves. We could not change the external circumstances that brought this woman into our lives, but we did chip away at the multitude of legal issues that had ensnared her. We secured a dissolution that allowed her to keep her health insurance, reunited her with her dogs, and obtained a life insurance policy that made it possible for her to travel with friends and family before she passed away.
Domestic violence pro bono work is vital, especially in the age of COVID-19. The new normal of social distancing, remote work settings, remote schooling, and disconnection from our support structures have been challenging for everyone. It is difficult to imagine what this looks like for those who do not live in a safe home. Taskforces looking at COVID-19 and domestic violence issues are sounding the alarm that survivors of domestic and sexual violence are at heightened risk right now and will remain so long after the current crisis.
As attorneys and humans, we are inundated with news that conveys fear, uncertainty, and stress during this pandemic. But when I look around, I see people everywhere who show up in the face of uncertainty, sharing their gifts with the world. Pro bono work has a positive impact on our communities. In one pro bono client’s words, “I think I would have given up if there wasn’t the light that there was [help] at the time that there was.” If we all get involved with a pro bono cause that moves our hearts, our profession will be a part of the healing our world needs right now.
If you are interested in learning how to help domestic violence survivors and their children, please reach out to your local legal aid program and your local domestic violence shelters to learn more about your community’s needs. Pro bono work is one of the most important things you can do—even if it is outside your comfort zone.