L-R Jaime Davis and Stephanie Biddle. ()
One of the first things you learn in domestic violence training at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation (AVLF) is that intimate partner violence can occur in any relationship, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or education level. We saw that firsthand with a client we recently represented. She was married to her abuser for decades and had several children with him. Both were highly educated, well-employed, and, to the outside world, had presented as a nearly perfect family. Until he tried to kill her.
When we took on her case, they were divorced, but a recent incident had prompted our client to seek a temporary protective order (TPO). AVLF had helped her obtain a 30-day ex parte order for herself, but our job was to extend the protective order for 12 months and also to extend the protection to her children. We had two means to accomplish this: (1) go before the court, present our client’s testimony and evidence, and hope that the judge agreed that there was a likelihood that violence would happen again; or (2) negotiate a consent order. Based on everything our client told us about her ex-husband, we were not optimistic about our chances of getting him agree to the TPO.
The morning of the hearing, we met our client at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop to ensure we did not encounter her ex-husband. We have met with plenty of clients in our careers to prepare for trial, hearings and critical depositions, but we have never felt as much pressure as we did for that morning. We are used to defending large corporations, where the absolute worst that can happen is our clients lose a great deal of money. But we knew our actions that day would affect our client’s life and the lives of her children forever. Their very lives could be at stake.
After calendar call, we stepped outside the courtroom with the ex-husband to start negotiations. We tried to step into the shoes of the judge and assess how he would present to the court if we had to go forward with the hearing. At first glance, he seemed perfectly pleasant and normal—not someone you would ever think would be capable of violence, much less against his family. But as negotiations dragged on, we started to see another side of him. Something in his eyes and the way he held himself changed. It was subtle, but we both saw it, and it was concerning enough that we knew that we had to do everything in our power to extend the TPO.
The negotiations took hours. It felt like, for every step forward, we had to take another step back. Finally, we made some headway, and, after one last request, both parties agreed to the terms. But we still had to write out an exhibit to the consent order to memorialize the agreement. In our usual practice, you would carefully type up such an exhibit, proofreading several times to ensure it was perfect. But AVLF had warned us that we might have to mark up the order based on the outcome of the negotiations. So, casting aside everything our BigLaw training had ingrained in us, we furiously handwrote a pagelong exhibit with the agreed-upon provisions. We were sure that, if we delayed a moment too long, he would come up with another demand—and this time our client might not be willing or able to agree.
Fortunately, he signed the consent order, and, with our client’s and the judge’s signatures we had a 12-month TPO to protect both our client and her children. Walking out of the courthouse, our client clutched the order as if it was her most prized possession. And, next to her children, it may well have been. After many hugs, we parted ways, watching her walk toward her new life, a little more confidently than when she walked in that morning. Although we likely will never see her again, we think of her often and are grateful that we were able to play a small role in hopefully giving her a better and more secure future.
We highly encourage all lawyers, regardless of experience, to consider volunteering with AVLF’s Domestic Violence Program. AVLF’s Safe Families Office provides ample training and assistance to equip you to handle these cases, and they make themselves available as you prepare for the hearing (and on the day of the hearing). We would not have had such a successful outcome in this case without the support of the Safe Families Office, particularly the assistance of Lilli Crowe and Jamie Perez, who tirelessly answered our questions. AVLF offers training several times throughout the year. Find out more information on their website at avlf.org.
All of us juggle many competing interests for our time, but we promise few endeavors will be as rewarding as knowing you potentially saved a client’s life.