Whether motivated by altruism or obliged by their firms' policies, many lawyers do pro bono work. But often they lack the expertise to handle legal matters outside their usual practice areas.
In an effort to address this problem, several lawyers at Troutman Sanders's Orange County office recently forged a unique partnership with a domestic violence organization and a law professor willing to familiarize them with the relevant legalities.
The catalyst for the pilot project was Jennifer Bojorquez, a real estate finance partner at Troutman Sanders. She also serves on the board of Human Options, which began in 1981 as a domestic violence crisis hotline and expanded to include an emergency shelter, counseling, and other services.
"It occurred to me our firm could be doing something to help the Human Options clients," Bojorquez says. She broached the idea with Kim Orbeck, who headed Troutman Sanders's pro bono committee.
The timing was serendipitous, as several lawyers at the firm - most of whom concentrate on business law - had recently expressed interest in taking on domestic violence cases. "One of my biggest concerns was that we needed training," says Orbeck. "We really didn't find agencies that were receptive. We were probably more trouble than we were worth."
But Judy Haskell, a longtime legal advocate at Human Options, didn't think so. A nonlawyer, she escorts clients to court when they're seeking protective orders against an abusive spouse or partner. "I'm like a sweater. I make clients feel better when I'm around," she says. "But I can't go up to the bench with them - and they can lose their cases so easily."
Haskell was comfortable counseling uninitiated lawyers about what to expect in court, but not with the legal training they would need. "I was looking for the right person to do the training who would understand not just the law, but the special needs of our domestic violence clients," she says. That includes sensitivity to trauma, along with practicalities such as protecting the confidentiality of a client's whereabouts and getting her safely from the courthouse to the car.
The trainer with the right stuff was Wendy Seiden, associate clinical professor at Chapman University School of Law's family violence clinic. Seiden helped devise a comprehensive legal training program - including tours of protective shelters and a day of observing domestic violence court.
Vivian Clecak, one of Human Options's founders, is particularly grateful for the help from Troutman Sanders attorneys. "The majority of perpetrators show up in court, often represented by counsel - and too often it is the women standing there in the same room, alone and afraid," she says. "One thing our clients say over and over is, 'I felt so much stronger when I had a lawyer standing there with me.' "
Clecak echoes others' hopes that the training partnership model will be replicated. "If any other firm is interested in this training, we can provide it," she says. "We now have an innovative program for them."