As a trusts and estates associate at Duane Morris, Jamie Dyce’s practice wouldn’t normally intersect with sex trafficking victims.
But through a partnership with a non-profit organization, Dyce and the New York office of Duane Morris have made representation of former sex slaves their signature pro bono initiative. For Dyce, the unofficial coordinator, service to the sexually exploited has become the centerpiece of her ambitious 200-hour-per-year pro bono commitment.
“A lot of people ask why I am doing this,” said Dyce. “When you see these kids, that’s all the reason you need.”
Over the past year, Duane Morris nurtured a partnership between its New York office and Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), the only group in the state specifically designed to help girls and young women who have endured commercial sexual exploitation.
GEMS was founded by Rachel Lloyd, a victim of childhood sex trafficking who was instrumental in gaining passage of New York’s Safe Harbor Act for Sexually Exploited Youth, the first law in the country to specifically recognize sexually exploited youth as victims rather than perpetrators.
“It is heart-wrenching and makes you realize how lucky you are,” said Dyce, 34, who grew up in suburban Buffalo. “I think back when I was 14 years old and my biggest problem was who I was taking to the school dance. And these girls are fighting for their lives.”
Dyce said the victims, many of whom were under 14 when they were first trafficked, were regularly exploited not only for sex but as weapon or drug couriers.
“When they were trafficked, they were often arrested for prostitution or soliciting or other charges stemming from that, maybe possession of a weapon or drugs,” Dyce said. “They are very vulnerable and they often don’t have families, or their families are abusive. Most of them come from low-income backgrounds. They are very susceptible to being brainwashed by the pimps.”
The Safe Harbor Act, signed by Governor David Paterson in 2008 and effective in 2010, gave sex trafficking victims the chance to vacate their convictions if their offenses resulted from coercion. But it didn’t provide them with lawyers, and GEMS doesn’t have in-house counsel.
That’s where Duane Morris and Dyce came in.
Michael Grohman, managing partner in Duane Morris’ New York office, said the GEMS partnership is the firm’s “flagship project” and Dyce, who was already an active and high-volume volunteer with the New York City Bar’s Elder Law and Cancer Advocacy Project, promptly signed on and started recruiting her colleagues.
Grohman said Dyce has put in scores of time herself, recruited more than 30 Duane Morris attorneys, as well as lawyers from other firms and law students to help the sex trafficking victims not only with their motions to vacate their criminal convictions, but other legal needs such as landlord-tenant assistance and non-legal needs such as getting notebooks and calculators when they return to school.
“Jamie is a very empowering person,” Grohman said. “It takes an incredible sensitivity and personality to be able to deal with this particular project, and there is nobody here who is better at it than she is.”
Julie Laurence, chief program officer with GEMS, said Dyce’s enthusiasm, commitment and willingness to provide legal services on short notice has served as an example to other lawyers.
“She is committed to this issue and has really supported us and our members,” Laurence said. “Her commitment has galvanized other lawyers to come on board.”
Laurence said Dyce is playing a vital role in setting up a clinic so GEMS and its volunteers are more aware of the ancillary legal issues that can haunt former sex trafficking victims.
“Many of our girls have numerous legal needs and we don’t have any lawyers on staff,” Laurence said. “Jamie is awesome.”
Dyce studied political science and French at the State University at Binghamton, graduating cum laude in 1999. She took three years off before law school, working as a paralegal for Willkie Farr & Gallagher and then for a mutual fund company in Denver before coming home and enrolling in the University at Buffalo Law School. During law school, she interned with Erie County Surrogate Barbara Howe.
“I always knew I would go to law school,” said Dyce, who is pursuing an advanced professional certificate in taxation and planning from New York University School of Law. “I like politics. I like people. I like to figure out what makes people tick.”
Dyce has been a part of Grohman’s wealth planning group since joining the firm in 2009 after stints with now-defunct WolfBlock and Greenfield Stein & Senior. She handles estate-planning administration and goes to court on contested probates and trust litigation—and, according to Grohman, does so “with grace and dignity.”
“She is a practicing lawyer and doesn’t do [pro bono] in lieu of a full agenda, but in addition to it,” Grohman said. “She balances a lot, and she does it with tremendous zeal and compassion. Nobody takes ownership of this like Jamie does. She is just a compassionate human being. She is very talented.”
Ever since she was admitted to the bar in 2005, Dyce has put in more than her share of pro bono hours—a service commitment she says was instilled by her mother, who taught at a tough inner-city school in Buffalo.
“I enjoy the law and finding ways to help people,” Dyce said. “I think a lot of it has to do with my mother’s altruistic spirit. She is really my inspiration.”
For the past three years, Dyce has volunteered with the City Bar’s Elder Law and Cancer Advocacy Project, tapping her professional expertise to provide planning services for elderly individuals and low-income, terminally ill cancer patients.
Vivienne Duncan, director of the project, said Dyce has handled more than a dozen matters for the program, “a very high involvement rate for our volunteers.”
“She is just a very compassionate person who wants to help,” Duncan said.
Dyce’s pro bono cases for the project include providing estate planning services for a terminally ill woman who had been in a Japanese internment camp during World War II and wanted to shield her reparations from estranged family members. Dyce met with the woman immediately, prepared the necessary documents and three days later the client succumbed to lung cancer, and was “able to go peacefully,” according to a letter from the decedent’s nephew.
In another case, Dyce administered the estate of a young attorney who died tragically, leaving a low-income family. And in yet another she represented a terminally ill Harlem musician who wanted his assets to go to his girlfriend of 30 years rather than the wife who abandoned him and their children decades earlier.
“Jamie is one of the volunteers that we have come to depend on, especially for cases that are more difficult,” said Jane Pennebaker, former project coordinator for the elder law and cancer project. “Maybe the client is home-bound and a volunteer would have to travel to a hospital, a home or hospice, and that is something Jamie has done. When there is a case we are nervous about and need to address it quickly and we need someone dependable, she is the one we look to.”
Dyce is also a member of the board of the Pajama Program, an organization that provides pajamas and books to children in need. Although that project does not involve legal work, it does have a personal appeal to Dyce.
“My favorite thing in life is to curl up in my pajamas and read a good book,” Dyce said. “And I have always had a strong affinity for helping kids.”
That “affinity for helping kids” is what drives her to spend the bulk of her pro bono hours on the GEMS project.
“These girls are victims of child abuse,” Dyce said. “To basically penalize them for something that happened to them is hard to wrap your mind around.”
Dyce said trafficking victims often have records for prostituting themselves when they were 15 or 16, or even younger, notwithstanding the fact that in New York a girl can’t consent to sex until she is 17.
“Often their identities are stolen, they are given a new name, told to say that they are 18 and thrown in jail with an adult population,” Dyce said. “It is a life filled with abuse. Most of them don’t make it out alive, and those who do have extreme psychological damage. The thing that really strikes me in talking with the girls and hearing their stories is they truly are girls just like us. They have dreams. They have hopes. They deserve to have the freedom in their lives to make their own way, to be happy.”