Clinic students, from left: Heather Davis, Julia Patane, Michael Bates and Nick Dorando.
Clinic students, from left: Heather Davis, Julia Patane, Michael Bates and Nick Dorando. (Albany Law School)

ALBANY – A new initiative named for a pioneering Albany Law School professor is striving to build a pipeline connecting the legal community to so-called “silenced victims” of domestic violence in the Capital Region.

The Kathryn D. Katz Fellowship and Incubator Program, a joint project of the law school and The Legal Project, is using state funding and private donations to employ students and recent graduates to increase legal services for victims of abuse who are trapped or disadvantaged due to lack of representation.

Katz, a beloved professor and 1970 graduate of Albany Law School, launched what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation domestic violence seminar in 1986. Katz died of brain and breast cancer in 2012.

The fellowship offers a tripartite approach involving an in-house practical clinic, law student placements and two-year post-graduate paid fellowships. The fellows will work through The Legal Project, a nonprofit group founded by the Capital District Women’s Bar Association in 1995 to help domestic violence victims and the working poor.

Lisa Frisch, executive director of The Legal Project, said the next step will be for the fellows to staff a new public interest incubator that provides free and reduced fee representation in matrimonial and family law cases.

“This innovative initiative seeks to address both the endemic lack of civil legal access to justice and the law school graduate employment challenge,” she said. “We see this as a great example of collaboration not only between Albany Law School and The Legal Project, but also in terms of the support we have received—a true private-public-nonprofit-educational partnership.”

Frisch said the initiative’s connection with the late Professor Katz is especially meaningful.

“Kathy started the first domestic violence law school courses in the country, and her efforts to raise the awareness of Albany Law students on issues relating to women and the law impacted our entire community as a whole,” she said. “She was someone who truly made a difference in everything that she did.”

Katz’s family and several local law firms—Martin, Harding & Mazzotti; Deily & Glastetter; O’Connell & Aronowitz; LaFave, Wein & Frament; McNamee Lochner Titus & Williams; Hacker Murphy; Tabner Ryan & Keniry; Mack & Associates; and the Spada Law Firm—are sponsoring the program. Additionally, the Office of Court Administration contributed $75,000 in seed money last fall through the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services. The state Senate also provided a $165,000 grant.

“We see our support of this fellowship program as an investment in our community, not only providing students and new graduates with a tremendous opportunity for experiential learning, but also increasing vital legal resources to serve victims of abuse,” said Paul Harding of Martin, Harding & Mazzotti in Schenectady.

Kurt Bratton, a partner at Albany’s O’Connell & Aronowitz, said the firm is supporting the initiative because “it improves access to legal services for victims of domestic violence, a critical area of need in our community. Victims of domestic violence need legal representation not just to protect their rights, but often to help them move forward with their lives, without fear.”

Largely because of Katz’s efforts, Albany Law School has long been a pioneer in the battle against domestic violence.

Its two-pronged domestic violence clinic, established 20 years ago, includes a civil component that addresses the sociological angle and a criminal component that deals with orders of protection and similar judicial remedies. Katz permanently linked the two components with a novel seminar, providing symmetry between the civil and criminal sides of the domestic violence equation.

Professor Mary Lynch and Sarah Rogerson, an assistant clinical professor of law, now run the program.

Lynch said the fellowship initiative began as an informal mentorship program and developed through the partnership with The Legal Project. She said the fellowship’s goal is to provide a continuum where admittedly green students and recent graduates partner with an experienced professional to provide the quality of services needed by victims of domestic violence.

“Professional development generally takes about 10 years, in any discipline, before someone is a fully-formed professional,” Lynch said. “The recent restructuring of the legal profession has really shaken up that development so disadvantaged, low-income clients who have trouble accessing competent lawyers often rely on plucky, junior lawyers for their representation, lawyers who are earnest and passionate and trying to act like someone with 15 years of experience.”

Lynch said the Albany Law School pipeline initiative is an incubator where students in their second year “start to learn professional development, start to learn holistic lawyering and client centered representation” and, critically, how to access and leverage mentors.

“In the third year, they begin to move from the clinic to an internship with The Legal Project, taking those skills to a not-for-profit that can mentor them,” Lynch said. the post-graduate goal, she said, is to create a continuum, “and create incentives within public service organizations to have senior people mentoring junior people. It creates a pipeline for much more qualified folks representing disadvantaged individuals.”

Lynch said the emails she has received from clients about the services they received from the first fellow, Gracja Nowak, who graduated last year, provided all the proof she needed of the initiative’s veracity. Some examples:

• “The interns/fellows were very knowledgeable and very impressive. The Legal Project should be honored to have Gracja Nowak. She was flawless in her professionalism and knowledge.”

• “Working with Gracja gave me back my strength.”

• “The best thing about the help I received was that the interns, fellows and staff worked as team to help me.”

• “I was very scared for my life and well-being when I called for help. Gracja was very helpful, knowledgeable and guided me through every step of my divorce. She was so understanding.”

Students and former students who have been involved in the project say they got as much or more out of the program as the clients.

Nowak, now a post-graduate fellow, said the program “allowed me to develop a greater understanding of the issues facing the working poor.”

“In the six short months since I started my position with The Legal Project, I have surprised myself with my own professional growth,” Nowak said in a statement provided by The Legal Project. “I have made strides in my own legal competency and have transitioned from learning the basics of matrimonial law by assisting my supervising attorney, to being assigned my very first divorce for a victim of domestic violence.”

Joseph Williams, a third year student and an intern/fellow said he always leaned toward “people law,” and working through the fellowship solidified that interest.

“Hearing the heartbreaking stories of pain and strife that our clients have endured provides me with even greater inspiration and ambition to be an effective advocate to secure for them the justice that they deserve,” Williams said in a Legal Project statement. “I have developed a greater understanding of the dynamic field of domestic violence, have obtained insight into the practice of public interest law, and have seen firsthand the magnitude of the impact that that type of representation has on the lives of those we serve.”

Incoming Katz fellow Kayla Molinaro, who just graduated, said she recently encountered a client “who was abused and treated like a slave during her entire marriage.”

Molinaro said the woman, who was eventually banished from her home and taken to a domestic violence shelter, needed legal assistance and is now benefiting from a committed team of attorneys connected with The Legal Project.

“The most valuable thing I have learned is that The Legal Project is a team and we all have the same goal—to provide the best legal services to individuals who could not otherwise afford it,” Molinaro said in a statement.

Lorraine Silverman of the Albany Law class of 2005, is managing attorney for the program.