Pitney Hardin LLP: The Battered Women's Legal Advocacy Project

Sunday, August 1, 2004 - 01:00
Robert L. Hollingshead

Pitney Hardin LLP, located in Florham Park, New Jersey, has been the leading force behind one of the most unique pro bono publico programs in the country for the past 12 years. The Battered Women's Legal Advocacy Project ("BWLAP") is a program that was organized, and has been administered, by Pitney Hardin as the liaison between the Morris County Bar Association and the Jersey Battered Women's Shelter in Morris County. The BWLAP provides pro bono attorneys to represent victims of domestic violence in court to obtain a Final Restraining Order ("FRO") against their abusers. Since its founding in 1992, the BWLAP has provided pro bono counsel to over 1,200 abused women with a success rate of over 90%. Unfortunately, the success of the BWLAP in Morris County is insignificant when compared to the staggering statistic that each year approximately 3,000 women are killed and three million women are abused by their husbands or companions in the United States.

The BWLAP was created by a Pitney Hardin partner, Robert Hollingshead, when he was President of the Morris County Bar Association in 1992. Another Pitney Hardin partner at that time, Kevin O'Donnell, was then a member of the Board of Directors of the Jersey Battered Women's Shelter and came to Bob with a problem that greatly concerned the Shelter regarding the lack of legal representation for victims of domestic violence. In particular, while victims were able to obtain an ex parte Temporary Restraining Order ("TRO") from municipal judges (with the assistance of the local police who investigated their complaints and employees of the Shelter), many of the victims were compelled to appear in Superior Court without counsel at their hearing for an FRO due to their lack of access to funds to retain an attorney. However, their abusers routinely appeared with counsel and, consequently, were very often successful in their defense. As a result, having been denied an FRO, which automatically vacates the TRO, the victims were compelled to either return to a violent environment or leave their homes. In most instances, leaving home was not a viable option, so the cycle of violence would continue.

When apprised of this situation, Bob devised the concept of the BWLAP and, along with Kevin, obtained the support of both the Bar Association and the Shelter to act as joint sponsors of the endeavor. Enlisting the aid of several experienced family law attorneys, the Pitney Hardin partners set out to develop a working model of the program, including establishing financial criteria for a victim's admission to the program, a means of training volunteer attorneys who, in most instances, did not practice family law, and a method of assigning those volunteers to their pro bono clients. Each of these essential elements presented difficult problems, the solutions to which are still being refined today.

The Financial Criteria

The BWLAP was designed to assist those women who cannot afford to retain private counsel, but are not sufficiently indigent to qualify for representation through the Morris County Legal Aid Society. In order to determine financial qualification, a screening interview procedure and questionnaire were developed for use by the Legal Advocates at the Shelter. The Legal Advocates are, in the main, specially educated and trained to assist abused women in crisis, including the unique social and psychological stresses that are created by domestic violence. They also act as the indispensable liaison between the victim, who generally has had no contact with a court or lawyers, and the pro bono attorney who is assigned as her counsel. Based on their training and position with the Shelter, they were the obvious choice to act as the screener for the financial criteria. Accordingly, a uniform financial questionnaire was developed for the victim to fill out and then certify in order for the pro bono attorney to be assured that the victim whom he or she is representing is truly in need of pro bono services. The questionnaire takes into account such considerations as the victim's total income and expenses, her access to money of her own or through her family or potentially from the defendant, the number of dependents in the victim's care, her access to credit lines and loans from family members, and her access to funds on an emergency basis. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the pro bono attorneys have agreed that their clients were financially qualified for the program.

Training The Volunteer

In the first year of operation of the BWLAP, approximately 60 attorneys volunteered to act as pro bono counsel for the victims who were qualified for representation and that number has remained relatively constant over the years as volunteers have entered and left the program. While some of them were experienced family lawyers, most of them have had no experience in family law or domestic violence cases and little experience in litigation. In fact, some of them practice in fields far from the courtroom, such as real estate, corporate, and trusts and estates. What they all share, however, is the strong desire to assist the victim, and their community, and to promote the image of their profession. Accordingly, it was the belief of Bob, Kevin and the Shelter's Associate Executive Director, Jane Baldwin, that they needed to develop a training program for all volunteers, with the most experienced attorneys serving as instructors on the legal issues and Shelter representatives (advocates and Ms. Baldwin) serving to provide advice to the volunteers (experienced and inexperienced alike) on the social and psychological issues that victims face. After considerable effort, a comprehensive Training Manual and a six-hour training program were developed. Both the Manual and the program have been revised annually to reflect the latest case law and statutory changes and recent psychological studies. A formal training session is conducted every year for new volunteers.

The Training Manual is comprehensive (300 pages) and includes the following: information regarding the BWLAP, including its goals and eligibility criteria; facts and statistics regarding domestic violence and the role of the Shelter; articles discussing domestic violence issues, including the psychological stresses imposed on victims; a reprint of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and related criminal statutes; the State of New Jersey's Domestic Violence Procedures Manual that is issued to the State's Judges and Prosecutors; BWLAP procedures and forms; and relevant case law on the most common domestic violence issues.

At the six-hour training session, most of those same topics are covered by the speakers. As part of the training, there is also a two-hour presentation of a mock case, including an interview of the victim, trial preparation and a mini-trial with direct and cross-examination of the victim and the defendant. All of the training, including the mock trial, has been video-taped for future training sessions.

The Assignment Procedures

The aspect of the BWLAP that has changed the most over the years has been the method of assigning cases to the volunteers. The one constant since the inception of the program has been Pitney Hardin's responsibility for the daily administration of the Program, under the supervision of Bob Hollingshead, who has been and remains the Chair of the BWLAP Committee that reports to the Bar Association. A Pitney Hardin associate has always been the Co-Chair (currently Joanna Steinberg Varone) and all assignments over the life of the program have been handled by the Firm. Initially, and for several years thereafter, all of the volunteers were notified by fax (there was no e-mail when the program started!) each time a victim was qualified for representation and the case was then assigned to the first volunteer who said he or she would be available to handle the case. Due to the generally short turn-around time between the entry of the TRO and the hearing date for the FRO, this method presented the specific problem that many attorneys had conflicts on their calendars that made them unavailable. Also, if no attorney volunteered within a day or two, a lot of scrambling took place to find an available attorney. Eventually, the Pitney Hardin team decided to create a new assignment system.

The new system focused on the creation of teams of four to six members, who are assigned to cover specific weeks throughout the year. There are currently 12 teams, each one with a team leader who assigns cases to the team members and oversees the progress of the attorneys handling the assigned cases. The team leaders are also the contacts for the Pitney Hardin coordinators when administrative matters arise. In January of each year, the teams are given their assigned weeks so that they can reserve those times for their potential pro bono clients, as they would for events and appointments within their daily practice. In large measure, this procedure eliminated the vast majority of the conflict problems that the volunteers had encountered. The team is expected to cover whatever cases may be assigned to court dates during the team's weeks. Based on the number of teams, each team can expect to be "on call" about three weeks per year (two days each week) at regular intervals of approximately once every quarter. If no or few cases are scheduled for court in the team's assigned week, the team is "off duty" until its next assigned week. On the other hand, in case a team is assigned more cases than its members can handle, other teams will step in to help.

Pitney Hardin also created a special team of the most experienced volunteers who were not assigned any particular dates in advance. Rather, this team is held in reserve to handle the most sensitive or difficult cases or to assist another team if that team received more cases than it could handle in a particular week.

On the administrative side, there is an Executive Committee of the BWLAP consisting of two experienced family law attorneys, the Director and Legal Coordinator of the Shelter, and Bob Hollingshead, Joanna Varone, and their assistant, Mary Golczewski. The Executive Committee meets monthly to discuss the status of the program, any issues or concerns that have arisen, and new ideas to be implemented in the future.

The BWLAP has become an important and indispensable part of the Morris County community. Its success has resulted in inquiries from other Bar Associations and Women's Shelters both in New Jersey and other states as to the operation of the program and the possible implementation of the program at those sites. The Training Manual has served as a model for use by other programs and the Executive Committee members have been invited to speak to other Bar Associations and Shelters. However, it has become obvious that the operation of such a program requires tremendous diligence and sacrifice by all involved, a solid working relationship between the local Bar and Women's Shelter, and a strong sense of community and professionalism among the pro bono attorneys to achieve success. That combination has existed for 12 years in Morris County as the Bar Association, the Shelter, the volunteers and Pitney Hardin have been able to provide much needed services to a deserving segment of the community. At the same time, all of the lawyers have brought honor to the profession of law.

Please email Mr. Hollingshead at rhollingshead@daypitney.com with questions about this article.