Fall 2015: Pro Bono Spotlight: The Women’s Bar Foundation, Family Law Project

The Women’s Bar Foundation, Family Law Project (FLP) is a non-for-profit organization that provides pro bono representation in family law matters. The clients are low-income victims and survivors of domestic violence. The project focuses on recruiting, training, and mentoring volunteer attorneys so they are able to take on these cases.

Rachel Biscardi, Director of Pro Bono Projects and Lisa Jacobson, Staff Attorney, screen all potential FLP clients as well as recruit, train, and mentor volunteer attorneys. They match each volunteer lawyer with a client and a mentor, who is an experienced family law attorney. Mentors are always available to answer questions, provide support, or help the volunteer attorney in anyway they can.

The FLP Client and Intake Process

In order to be considered eligible for the FLP, a prospective client must be a victim or survivor of domestic violence. In addition, their income must be under 250% of the Federal Income Guidelines. By having the income qualifications at this level, those who are “working poor” are able to qualify for the FLP’s services.

The first step for all prospective clients is to call the FLP’s intake line, which, in 2014, responded to 1,700 calls. When the client calls, they schedule a formal appointment with a member of the FLP staff for an intake. The intake consists of questions to help the project screen eligibility and ensures the caller is reaching out to the correct organization. After the initial intake, FLP staff conducts weekly case reviews to determine if the client should be advanced to the next stage of the process: an in person evaluation at the office.

At the evaluation, a member of the FLP staff meets with the prospective client to gain more knowledge about their pending legal matter. At this meeting, the staff member may review paperwork, including pleadings. They will also ask questions about the client and their situation. This evaluation allows the FLP to determine whether an attorney may be able to help the client resolve their legal issue and allows the FLP to screen out prospective clients who have severe mental health issues, significant cognitive delays, or serious drug and alcohol problems which would prohibit a client from participating in their own case.

The FLP staff then has a final case review to assess if the prospective client’s case would be appropriate for the project. They also determine which volunteer attorney should be assigned to the case, given the legal issues present and the client’s background. For example, an attorney who has domestic violence experience may get a case where domestic violence is a larger issue in the case. Or, an attorney who speaks a second language may be given a case where the client also speaks that language. After deciding which volunteer attorney would be a good match for the client, the FLP staff then reaches out to the attorney and allows the attorney to review the case to determine if they are able and interested in taking it.  The final step is to have the volunteer attorney meet with the client to make sure that both the client and the attorney are happy with their “match” and ready to move forward with the case.

Every volunteer attorney is matched with a mentor. The WBF has three requirements for their mentors: (1) practice experience; (2) sensitivity to domestic violence; and (3) a willingness to share their knowledge with someone newer to family law. These mentors help guide the attorney through the case, and are available to offer advice and support, when needed. The mentors tend to be experienced family law attorneys who donate their time and are excited to help the volunteer attorneys.

What it is like to Volunteer for the FLP

Jessica Dubin is a partner at the domestic relations firm Lee & Rivers LLP in Boston. She has been a volunteer attorney for the organization since 2008 and also serves as a mentor. She was drawn to the organization because it allowed her to continue an interest she had in college dealing with women and children’s domestic violence and sexual assault issues, while providing pro bono representation to clients in need.

In her most recent FLP case, a woman was seeking a divorce from her extremely abusive husband, requesting sole physical and legal custody, minimal visitation, an appropriate level of child support and equitable division of the marital estate. The case had been pending for two years by the time Jessica became involved, and the client had experienced difficulty representing her position to the judge pro se due to the anxiety and panic attacks she suffered when she had to see her abuser in court.  The client’s goal was to settle the case because she did not think she would be able emotionally to testify about the abuse she had suffered. Jessica nevertheless prepared the case for trial and compiled an exhibit book with so many exhibits that were damaging to the husband that eventually the case settled on terms that were favorable to the client.   Jessica also agreed to represent the client in a separate District Court abuse prevention order case against the same abuser, and was successful in having the order extended at least for another year.  

Jessica finds working on these types of cases to be personally rewarding. Through the project, she is able to directly help someone who greatly needs it, and in some cases, whose safety depends in part upon her representation. Being a mentor is something Jessica also finds very fulfilling. She is impressed by the attorneys who take cases who practice in a field other than family law and is able to give them advice and information that they would not otherwise have.

Jessica thinks the FLP in especially great for new lawyers and young attorneys. The project provides excellent support to their volunteers, whether it come from the mentors or the FLP staff. Someone is always available to answer questions and provide memos on any legal issues they may encounter. It allows the volunteer attorneys to get hands on experience with their own case, something they might not get the chance to do if they work at a law firm. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of taking a FLP case is the ability to go to court and hone one’s oral argument skills at a court appearance.  Judges also often seem appreciative of attorneys who take on pro bono representation through the project, which could motivate more seasoned attorneys who do not necessarily need more experience in court to accept a FLP client.  

How to Volunteer for the FLP

The WBF holds Family Law training session twice a year to educate attorneys in the areas of domestic violence, divorce, custody and other issues related to family law.  The training is one day, from 9 AM- 5 PM and provides attorneys with the background information and materials needed to handle a family law case with a domestic violence issue. In 2014, the FLP trained 150 attorneys who have gone on to take cases and advocate for their clients. The training is free, but by taking the training, the attorney agrees to accept a case within six months of the training.

FLP held its Fall Training on November 3, 2015 in Boston at Nutter McClennen & Fish. The next training will be offered in the spring. If you are interested, please email Rachel Biscardi at Rbiscardi@womensbar.com

Alana B. Holly is an associate at Taylor Ganson & Perrin LLP where she concentrates her practice in Family Law. She serves as the Women’s Bar Foundation Liaison and helps coordinate VLP’s Family Court Clinic. Alana is a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Family Law Steering Committee and serves as the Pro-Bono/Public Service Co-Chair. She is a graduate of New England Law | Boston and received her bachelors’ degree from Syracuse University.