by Akhila Kolisetty, J.D. ’15, Harvard Law School
As I sat in the courtroom with my client, waiting for the judge to call us for a pre-trial hearing, we saw my client’s abusive husband enter the room. Immediately, she became nervous and tense. In that moment – as she started tearing up and remembering the past abuse he had put her through – I saw the impact that a lawyer and advocate can make in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. I listened to my client’s needs, reassured her that she would be safe, and that we would achieve the best possible outcome in her divorce case.
A few minutes after this conversation, I had the chance to present the key issues in the case before a family court judge. In my opening statement, I detailed the history of abuse my client had gone through. I explained why she deserved custody of her children, why she should reside in the marital home, and receive child support. Through discovery, I had gathered evidence of a substantial sum of money that my client should have received during the marriage, so I also argued why she deserved a portion of those assets. The judge was sympathetic to our requests and gave us more time to collect critical evidence needed before a trial. I left feeling that the case would have a positive outcome, and my client left feeling a sense of hope for the future.
The experience of representing low-income survivors of domestic violence was an incredible one. I had come to law school with a deep interest in improving my ability to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. Prior to law school, I had volunteered as an advocate providing peer support to immigrant survivors of violence but often felt that I lacked the capacity to fully advocate for them. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me pair empathy with crucial skills in negotiation, oral advocacy and legal writing, to be a much stronger advocate for clients. I not only learned to represent clients in pre-trial hearings, but also conducted discovery, helped clients file for divorce, and advised them on their options. Throughout this process, I received helpful feedback that concretely improved my skills.
Many survivors of domestic violence are immigrants and low-income; they have difficulty navigating the court system and lack the finances to hire a lawyer. Furthermore, abusers often appear confident in court, while survivors of abuse feel intimidated when required to speak in court alongside their abusive partners. Lawyers in family law cases can help survivors of abuse advocate for themselves and ensure that they obtain the financial resources and the independence they need in order to move forward and thrive. Lawyers can also simply listen to difficult stories, acknowledge past abuse, and serve as a support system.
The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me develop vital skills needed to become such a lawyer and advocate, while also providing a needed service to a vulnerable population. I cannot think of a better experience to have as a law student.
This piece was originally posted on the Harvard Law School Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog.