A GROUP OF LAWYERS providing free representation to victims of domestic violence: In 2015 the idea seems foreordained. But someone had to formulate the idea, find partners and put together all the moving parts, notably the money to get such a group going. Jenny Brody was that person.
From her time in Washington Brody knew there was a reservoir of lawyers, mostly women, who were taking a break from paid legal work to spend time raising their children. Also, there were lawyers, again mostly women, who had arrived in Washington as the plus-one of a spouse whose job got them moved here temporarily. Many of those lawyers would welcome a part-time practice, she knew.
The idea was to recruit that part-time legal talent and pair the lawyers with low-income people, yet again mostly women, in D.C. who needed them, mostly for domestic violence cases. The need was real: People involved in civil cases, including most family law cases, are not entitled to legal representation the way they are in criminal cases.
Opening its doors in 2008, the resulting DC Volunteer Lawyers Project hoped to sign up maybe 30 lawyers in its first year, but that many signed up at their very first recruitment meeting. By the end of 2015, 1,100 volunteer lawyers were working with DCVLP, donating altogether some 10,000 to 12,000 hours a year, at a market value of more than $3 million. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a DCVLP fundraiser, said: “What you’re doing really matters.” Since 2014, DCVLP has been selected by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of its “featured charities.” And in its January 2016 issue, Washingtonian Magazine has named Jenny Brody one of its 2015 Washingtonians of the Year.
With a Harvard Law School degree, Brody practiced for a little more than 10 years before leaving her law firm to spend 15 years at home with her children. By 2007, with two of the kids in high school and one more in sixth grade, she said, “There was suddenly more space in my life.” Brody started to think about ways to use her law degree.
Through Lawyers for Children America (LCA), Brody received a guardian ad litem case, a guardianship representing a person, usually a child, for the duration of a legal proceeding. In this case she was a guardian ad litem for a child who had been placed in foster care because her biological father had abused her. “She was a phenomenal kid,” Brody said, “a track runner, very disciplined and determined to make something of herself.” Brody found the case very moving. But when LCA closed its D.C. office, Brody was left with no malpractice insurance, nowhere to meet clients, no resources to cover filing fees and none of the other support available to attorneys in law firms who take pro bono cases.
Through LCA, she had met Marla Spindel, who also had a guardian ad litem case and also didn’t want to give up her client. Spindel brought valuable transactional law experience, most notably filing 501(c) (3) applications for non-profits. On maternity leave from a law firm, Spindel hadn’t decided whether to return. But when the idea of forming DCVLP arose, she said, “I definitely didn’t want to go back. I was passionate about this work.”
Brody and Spindel placed an ad on a listserv run by Lawyers at Home, a group affiliated with the Women’s Bar Association, asking if any lawyers might be interested in starting an organization to support lawyers not affiliated with law firms who wanted to do pro bono work. Karen Barker Marcou answered.
After 10 years at home with kids, Marcou had taken one guardian ad litem case but said, “It was nerve-racking. I was teaching myself.” She’d thought about starting the same kind of organization that Brody and Spindel proposed, to have fellow lawyers to bounce ideas off of and “for the collegiality,” she said. She told the others, “I can raise money. I did my kids’ school auctions.”
“It was like speed dating,” Brody said. “We met and figured out we could do this.” Marcou still talks about that first meeting at Starbucks: “It lasted half an hour and then we started this organization.”
For Marcou, the highlights of DCVLP are cases they’ve won. “Two stand out—women in long-term very abusive relationships, watching them evolve as people,” she said, “watching their children evolve, their transition into happy people with happy homes.” Also rewarding is the work with the volunteer lawyers, “facilitating their work and seeing how much they get out of it,” she said.
The District of Columbia has an enormous need for lawyers in all family-law cases. The D.C. police receive 30,000 domestic violence calls each year, and about 90 percent of victims who seek Civil Protection (“stay-away”) Orders have no access to a lawyer. Getting a CPO is the first step to freedom from abuse for someone in a violent relationship, but only about 40 percent of D.C. victims who petition for a CPO on their own are successful. Having a lawyer makes a huge difference in a victim’s ability to win a protection order, because lawyers are able to subpoena witnesses to testify at hearings, and can also obtain important documents, including medical records and recorded 911 calls from the victim. (Technically and legally, an individual person applying for a protection order can petition the court pro se, on their own behalf, but the chances they will know all the ins and outs are slim, hence the 40 percent success rate.)
For Spindel, the biggest challenge in starting DCVLP was lack of acceptance by the D.C. legal community. That worried her at first, she said, because “we didn’t understand the politics. But we had each other. I learned from Jenny how to push through. Jenny never gives up.”
“We support and complement each other,” said Brody. She remembers a conversation with a young clerk who asked why they had started the organization. According to Brody, “Marla said, ‘Because I hate unfairness.’ ” At that point Brody realized that the three hadn’t discussed personal motivations, but she thought, “I hate unfairness too!”
The next step was an introductory recruiting meeting, which they advertised on several middle- and high-school listservs, by posing the question: “Do you have a law degree you’re not using?” When 30 people showed up in the midst of a surprise snowstorm, said Brody, “it was way more than we expected.” The fledgling organization passed the hat—actually a bowl—and people chipped in, mostly small amounts but enough to buy a group malpractice policy at a much lower price than individual policies cost.
“We got the policy and we were in business,” Brody said. They settled on the name, DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, and got their own (expensive) password for an online legal research service. One decision the co-founders made early on was to always assign cases to pairs of lawyers. “It was safer, because we met with clients in their homes, and most of our clients live in high-crime areas,” said Brody. “Working together, we were better able to learn new areas of law.” This proved a successful model, one that DCVLP still follows, because it provides co-mentoring as well as backup, in case one person has a child-care emergency or is unavailable for some other reason.
In early 2008, less than a year after hashing out the idea, the organization was ready to hold its first training session and take its first case. For the early trainings, they partnered with WEAVE (an organization no longer in existence that had experience providing legal and other support to victims of violence). At first DCVLP couldn’t afford a permanent office and so rented a “virtual” one that provided a mailing address, phone answering service and use of conference rooms up to 20 hours per month.
In the spring of 2008, DCVLP held its first fundraiser with mostly friends and family. “We explained our idea and said, ‘Please help us!’ ” said Brody. “We were stunned” when net donations came to $30,000. DCVLP picked up speed very quickly. By the fall of that year, DCVLP volunteers had donated more than 700 hours of pro bono legal services to domestic violence victims and at-risk children. Soon the need for office space was “way over” 20 hours per month, according to Brody, at which point it was cheaper to rent a small physical office with unlimited use of conference room space for volunteers.
The biggest surprise in this experience for Brody: “We continued to think this would be very part-time, but we were expanding fast.” At that point, timing itself played a role, as the Great Recession deepened. Law firms slowed hiring of new graduates and laid off young lawyers, who came in droves to DCVLP, answering an ad the group placed on idealist.org recruiting volunteer lawyers. Newly minted lawyers, even without the recession, are motivated to work for DCVLP, Brody explained, “because we give them litigation experience they might not get for years at a firm.”
What helped the most: “It came from the clients,” said Brody, “that their needs were so overwhelming. Our first client, living in emergency housing with a tiny baby, had bruises on her neck where her boyfriend had strangled her, and he had beaten her with a baseball bat. I was horrified.” Brody had been “nervous about looking foolish” for trying to get back into the courtroom after her long break, but “the client’s fears about seeing her abuser in court put my fears in perspective.”
The biggest challenge for Brody: learning how to write grant applications, and all the new technology. “The last time I was in a law firm was in 1991,” she said. “There were NO computers.” Luckily Spindel’s law-firm experience was more recent and she shared her tech savvy. DCVLP had other talented volunteers, including one who created the DCVLP logo. A website designer volunteered to create DCVLP’s first online presence.
“To be honest, everything was a challenge,” Brody admitted. “We were all working long hours and not getting paid. We had clients with pressing needs so we took all of their cases to heart. We still do.”
Spindel said, “Being in court is very exhausting; you must be ‘on‘ the whole time.” Compared with corporate law, she said, “what’s very challenging is the changing nature of the cases. You can be all set, and then it all falls apart. It’s never boring, but it can be frustrating. These are people’s lives, not contracts.” But she added, “I really love what I’m doing.”
“It put my life into perspective,” Brody said. “Previously, I had been focused on my kids’ after-school activities, and here I had clients who were mothers and were struggling to keep their children alive. It put me on a different path with my life.” In her memory of the past seven years, she said, “The clients are crystal clear, I was so passionate about them. And I still am.”
One particularly tough case: DCVLP volunteers represented a young mother who was abused for years by the father of her twin boys. When she finally fled the relationship with her children to stay in a residence for battered women, the father of her children immediately sued the mother, seeking sole custody of the boys. When the father persuaded a law firm to represent him in the case pro bono, the firm’s attorneys pursued a very aggressive litigation strategy, showing up for every hearing with a team of five lawyers and paralegals carrying boxes of documents. The trial lasted four days, with the law firm calling numerous witnesses and subjecting the mother to lengthy cross-examination. In the end, to Brody’s immense relief, the DCVLP lawyers succeeded in obtaining a court order granting their client all the relief she sought, including full custody of the boys.
By the end of 2009, DCVLP had 175 volunteers contributing more than 4,000 hours of legal services. In 2010, the organization received a Leadership award from the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, accompanied by a $10,000 grant. In the fall, the Huffington Post ran two stories about DCVLP, the first one entitled “The Real, Real Housewives of D.C.: Pro Bono Lawyers Who Fight for Women and Children,” in which DCVLP founders were referred to as “self-described ‘mommy lawyers.’ ” In the second piece, “HuffPost’s Greatest Person of the Day: Jenny Brody,” Brody stated, “It’s okay to take a break [in your career] if you’re able to. You can regroup.” At that point, DCVLP had 280 volunteer lawyers. Of those, Brody said, “about one-third were looking for paying work and the rest were from a variety of source: stay-at-home moms, federal government attorneys and retired lawyers.”
By 2012, DCVLP had helped more than 1,800 men, women and children—more than 1,000 children—escape life in violent homes. In 2013, DCVLP stepped up its fundraisers with featured speaker Vice President Biden, who talked about the many women reluctant to report physical abuse. They don’t want “to get raped again by the system,” he said. Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, which was re-authorized in 2013.
A few months earlier, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Adviser to the President, wrote on her blog, “Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting the DCVLP…the remarkable founders and staff…and heard about all the great work they are doing every single day here in Washington, D.C.” According to the Catalogue for Philanthropy, DCVLP “primarily serves clients seeking civil protection orders (nearly 300 in 2014 with an outstanding 90% success rate).”
Anything in hindsight Brody would do differently? “Be more realistic about the time required. On the other hand,” she said, “maybe it was better we didn’t know, because each time something new came up…,” they just soldiered on. At any one time, DCVLP has more than 100 open cases and accepts two to three new clients for civil protection order cases every day.
The most important thing to know about DCVLP, according to Brody: “We are mission-driven. Everyone who works with us is passionate about the work we do.” As of 2015, DCVLP has an annual budget of close to $1 million, covering the salaries of seven staff attorneys, who supervise volunteer lawyers; one staff social worker, who helps clients with their non-legal needs, such as housing and counseling; rental of office space and administrative services. It maintains a free walk-in legal services clinic in Southwest D.C. and has helped thousands of men, women and children escape violence. Future goals and dreams: first, to expand clinic hours to after-work hours; and second, to find more lawyers to volunteer to help the ever-expanding list of victims waiting for help. (Volunteer lawyers do not have to be members of the D.C. bar.)
“Most lawyers are fairly idealistic when they go to law school, but we lose sight of our ideals,” Brody said. Speaking on the DCVLP website, volunteer lawyer Lee Hults says, “In two weeks of volunteer lawyer time you can change a person’s life forever.”
Also on the website, a client speaking about DCVLP says, “I never thought someone would go to that extent for me.”
And now she knows they have, and they will. For information about DCVLP’s free walk-in legal advice clinic, or for lawyers to volunteer with DCVLP, see www.dcvlp.org.