Executive Director of Her Justice: expanding the potential of pro bono
In his latest podcast, Ari Kaplan talks with Amy Barasch about the mission of Her Justice, how the organization leverages technology to empower its efforts, ways it collaborates with pro bono attorneys remotely, and its March 2021 report: Towards Justice for Parents in Child Support Courts
MEET OUR GUEST
Amy Barasch, Esq. has devoted most of her career to the issue of women’s rights, in particular intimate partner violence, at nonprofits, as a practicing attorney, and within government agencies including as the Executive Director for the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
Attorney and Legal Industry Analyst
Ari Kaplan is an attorney, author, and leading legal industry analyst. As the host of his own long-running Reinventing Professionals podcast, he has interviewed hundreds of leaders in the legal profession since 2009.
Executive Director of Her Justice
Amy Barasch leads the overall management of Her Justice, which stands with women living in poverty by training and mentoring volunteer attorneys to address individual and systemic barriers.
Welcome to “LEGALTECH MATTERS,” a Litera podcast dedicated to creating conversations about trends, technology, and innovation for modern law firms and companies big and small.
Welcome to Reinventing Legal. I’m Ari Kaplan and my guest today is Amy Barasch the executive director of Her Justice, a New York City-based nonprofit that supports women living in poverty by training and mentoring volunteer attorneys to represent them. Hi, Amy, how are you?
I’m great. Thanks so much for having me on your show, Ari.
Oh, it is my privilege. Tell us about your background and your work at Her Justice.
I am an attorney and not one of those people who woke up as a child and said, “I must be a lawyer.” So I took a somewhat circuitous path to where I am now. And what I love about working at Her Justice, among other things, is that it makes my background make sense in retrospect. I took about seven years between college and law school, working as a journalist and spending some time in graduate school. And after law school, when I went to law school, I knew I wanted to work on women’s issues. And when I was there, it was 1994, I graduated from law school in ’96 and The Violence Against Women Act was just passed. So if you wanted to do women’s rights and law, intimate partner violence was the place to be because there was so much action in that space. So, that’s how I started building a career around the issue of intimate partner violence.
And after law school, I worked at a firm for a couple of years, doing general litigation and some pro bono work. I launched a program after left the firm at a law school based not for profit. I worked at a public interest law firm. I worked at a city government. New York City had just created the office to combat domestic violence in New York City. And then I was appointed by then Governor Spitzer to run the Office for the prevention of domestic violence. We prevented the state level and combat at the city level. And I ran that for about five years. Decided to go back into the nonprofit sector and ultimately got to Her Justice. I have worked as a litigator for some years, but most of my time professionally has really been in the policy space, working on issues pertaining to women living in poverty, specifically intimate partner violence.
You’ve practiced with law firms, served in government and have taught law students. How does that combination of experience influence how you approach your work?
I really love having seen the law from all those different sides. One of the things that’s taught me is that sometimes we lawyers could be a bit myopic and think if there’s a problem, there must be a law to fix it or if there’s a problem, there must be a lawsuit to fix it. And while sometimes that’s true, having worked in government, I’ve become very aware of how important adequate implementation of existing laws is. We have a lot of laws on the books and our state legislature passes hundreds and hundreds of laws each year. So sometimes we don’t need a new law. We just need to realize we have a law that’s not being adequately implemented.
And in terms of the teaching, I do still teach, actually. I teach adjunct at Fordham law school and I love teaching up and coming lawyers to be because it keeps me fresh. It makes me stay on top of new changes in the law. And it helps me understand what the new generation of attorneys thinks about intimate partner violence and other issues regarding women and the law so that we can stay on the front of our own profession.
What types of cases do the Her Justice pro bono lawyers help with?
We work exclusively in the areas of family, divorce and immigration law. And that really was woven into the fabric of the organization from its founding when our founder was visiting family court and saw so many unrepresented women who were really not getting what they deserved or needed out of that system. We added on immigration some years later. And the areas in which we practice are the areas that women living in poverty tell us they need the help with the most. We talk sort of nationally about the reform of the criminal justice system, which is terrific and long overdue, but we don’t often talk about the civil justice system. And in many ways that’s where women live and where women have to go to get what we would many of us consider really basic rights addressed. The civil justice system for us is primarily, like I said, family and divorce, and then also immigration remedies available to victims of partner violence.
How do the internal Her Justice lawyers work with the attorneys who are volunteering to support the organization?
The pride we have in our work. We are what I call a pro bono first organization. And I say that because I think of pro bono as a necessary complement to straight up legal services. The way in which we are different from legal aid or the Legal Services Corporation, is that those organizations represent thousands of people every year themselves. And then they’ll take a couple of cases and assign them to volunteer attorneys. We do the reverse. So when we are doing intake or meeting potential clients, we are thinking of them all as possible clients for our volunteer attorneys. Given that we are pro bono first, what we really do is we both screen carefully when we’re meeting with clients to make sure that they’re going to be the right fit for a volunteer attorney. And by that, I mean that it’s a more or less straightforward case. The case hasn’t been pending for some time. You wouldn’t want to bring in a new lawyer if a case has been going on for a while.
And then we spend most of our time, our lawyers spend most of their time training and mentoring the volunteer lawyers. So we offer all of the attorneys who volunteer on our cases, deep training that’s in the substantive area of law, as well as in training on how to work with a legal services client. Because the nature of that attorney client relationship can be very different from the nature of relationship you might have with a corporate client. And then we also have a program called our corporate partner program, where we have even closer relationships with over 30 firms and those firms get additional added value, if you will.
We will do onsite Q and A sessions with their volunteer attorneys to help them through the cases. We will do specialized clinics with those firms. So we might come up with a group of clients who all need the same type of case, and we’ll train the attorneys together, sometimes with corporate clients of theirs. And we do a whole host of additional work with the corporate client firms, but we’ll work with any firm in the city that wants to volunteer on cases. All we ask is that they have the bandwidth to assign two attorneys to every case so that if their private work sort of amps up, we know that our client is not going to be left in the lurch.
You mentioned now using Zoom. How does Her Justice leverage technology to empower its efforts?
We’ve always been pretty good at technology compared to other nonprofits. Entire world is on the cloud and everything is backed up really well. But I will say that COVID pushed us over whatever hesitancy we had about technology, as it did I think for lots of us. Early into the COVID crisis, we purchased company laptops for everybody in the organization so that from an equity perspective, we knew that our own staff had the same access to technology. And most of our clients have smartphone, but they don’t all have safe and reliable access to Wi-Fi. So in some ways, working remotely is beneficial to our clients. If they have a smartphone, we can FaceTime and text with them, which means they don’t have to schlep downtown to our offices on Wall street and Broadway. They can communicate from wherever they are. But the downside for our clients is the courts also went remote.
I mean, to the extent that they were open at all and when they were open, they were remote. So we actually outfitted a couple of our offices in Downtown Manhattan so that our clients can use those offices to appear remotely in court since they may not be able to do that from their home. We have also spent the time recently to dig even deeper into the database and the software systems we currently use. So for example, our clients are soon going to be able to text directly with our attorneys and those texts will go into the case management systems directly because for clients, texting is really the easiest way for them to communicate. And then similarly with the law firms, they typically have pretty sophisticated text setups. But all of our training now for attorneys is by Zoom.
And finally, I would say one of the few silver linings to the COVID pandemic is that we actually reached more people, more potential clients during the pandemic than we ever have before, because we were able to leverage technology. So we were able to do community know your rights sessions on Facebook live or texting with clients and friends of theirs who wanted information. So there definitely were some ways in which we were able to harness that technology to reach more people, even as we actually represented fewer people because the court systems were not as fully functional as they could have been.
Tell us about that access to the courts during the pandemic and beyond.
One of the roughest parts of this process is not only obviously our clients. Our clients are women living in poverty and 90% of them are women of color. And this is this same population that has been hardest hit by the pandemic. And I feel as though I’m saying things that folks have heard before, but the pandemic really highlighted all of the preexisting inequities in our systems. And that was absolutely true in the court system. When I say that we do family, divorce and immigration law, New York family law happens in the family courts. Divorce actually happens in the Supreme courts and they were able to get more adequately functional more quickly than the family courts. And then the immigration proceedings on which we work happened in administrative proceedings that are federal. So they kept chugging along, which was not always a great thing because at the very beginning of the pandemic our clients had to file pretty robust papers with the federal government that would often require documents from police departments or documents from doctors. And all of those offices were closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
It was a sort of funny double-edged sword. The federal procedures were moving forward as though there was not a pandemic. Whereas our clients were unable to meet filing deadlines because they couldn’t get the paperwork they needed. On the other hand, clients had urgent needs to go to family court and the family court initially shut down completely. Then it was open for emergency petitions only, but the court’s definitions of emergency were very different from our definitions of emergency. So one concrete example of that is that the courts, the family courts were not hearing new petitions for child support, for example, for about a year and a half.
And if you imagine that in the larger context, our clients are either losing jobs like everybody else during the pandemic or more commonly because they’re women, they were working these essential jobs, which were putting their own health at risk, but at least they were employed. But they didn’t have places for their children to go because schools were closed or only intermittently open. Childcare centers were closed or only intermittently open. And so they really desperately needed to get income if the fathers of their children were still employed. But the courts did not deem that in emergencies. So they were not able to file for child support for about a year and a half.
So that was a real point of desperation for a lot of our clients because they needed to have access to any potential income that there was. And that was a door that was closed to them by the courts. That is starting to open up and the courts are hearing remote proceedings for sure in the family court, but there is now a huge backlog of cases. And the family court is one of our least well resourced court systems. We’re not expecting to see a resolution for a lot of those cases for some time.
Given these concerns, other than training has Her Justice altered the way it works with attorneys remotely?
Not only did we reach more clients than ever before, but we actually reached potential volunteer attorneys really differently. We still had a lot of demand to do volunteer work on our cases, which was great. The firm attorneys are fully functional remotely. So they were able to keep working. Like I said, our training for them, we converted that to be fully remote as well. We also were able to hold some of the clinics I mentioned before remotely. So a lot of that work was able to adjust pretty quickly to using tech support. And then in addition, something we found that our corporate partner firms were really interested in was what we started to offer as town hall meetings. As I said, COVID exacerbated a lot of preexisting distinctions and firm attorneys were working, as many of us are, from their living rooms or their kitchens and getting their work done. But they were even more separated from what life looked like for people like our clients.
So we held town hall meetings for some of our corporate partner law firms, where our attorneys would get onto a Zoom presentation and just talk about what life was looking like on the ground for people who worked as home health aids for a living. That kind of information was really, really interesting and demanded by the firms. They wanted to understand what the world looked like. We all felt very sort of isolated in our bubbles. It also increased interest among the attorneys to volunteer and take the cases that we were offering, because I think it helped them understand the desperate need of the women living in poverty.
And as I’m sure you know and your listeners know, certain sectors of the law firm world were extremely busy actually during this time. We work with a lot of attorneys in the restructuring field, for example, and business has been booming for them, but at the same time, they understand that if business is booming for them, that unfortunately means that the opposite is true for folks like our clients. And I think they felt really dedicated to give back in some way. So letting them hear about what opportunities we had drove a lot of offers of assistance from folks in the law firm sectors that were doing well.
Given how busy you mentioned they are, how does Her Justice compete for talent with the array of other non-profit organizations that have pro bono programs?
We don’t really see it as competition because those other non-profit organizations are all our colleagues and allies. And unfortunately there is enough work to go around. There is such lack of sufficient legal representation for people like our clients that we’re happy to cross refer and we do that all the time, but I will say that as a pro bono first organization, what we offer firms that is different from what traditional legal services have the bandwidth to offer, this rich support that I mentioned before. So really tailored training for the law firms, our attorneys on call at all times to answer questions.
And we have really rich relationships with the law firms, such that we know the kind of cases they’re most interested in. Some firms are more interested in working in the immigration space, for example, because they’ve done that for a long time. So there’s a lot of in-house knowledge at that firm. Other firms have a lot of language capacity. And so they’re eager to get some of our clients who may not be English speakers. So because we’ve really, pro bono is our bread and butter, we’re known for being able to give tailored opportunities to firms and really rich support and guidance for the attorneys who take those cases.
Has the pandemic varied the issues that women and children living in poverty are facing?
Unfortunately just exacerbated the issues and maybe made certain issues more upfront for them. One of the things we focus a lot on in our work, because we’re working with women living in poverty, we really emphasize how the civil legal system can in fact improve the economic outcomes for our client. We don’t always think of civil law as doing that. Sometimes it’s as explicit, as I said before, as a child support petition where you’re literally requesting income from the other parent of your child, but there also are ways in which, for example, a divorce case can have a huge economic benefit for our clients. We talk a lot about our divorce practice. Volunteer attorneys, that’s the case for them that is the hardest to understand as sort of a social justice case either because they may be children of divorce themselves or they, “Now I’m dating myself,” but saw “Kramer versus Kramer” and think, “I don’t want to go anywhere near that at.” But for our clients, when you get divorced, you don’t just divide assets, but you also divide debts.
And so for many of our clients, they really needed to move forward with a divorce during the pandemic because otherwise they were going to be subject to debts that had actually been accrued by their husbands. And that’s pretty common in relationships, especially if there’s been financial abuse where the person who’s been victimized, typically the female or the lesser earning spouse, who’s often the wife that debts have been accrued in her name because once you’re married, everything is sort of in the name of the marriage. And she really needs to get out from under those debts that her husband has accrued because otherwise, believe me, the people enforcing the debts are going to be coming after them even during the pandemic. So I think we saw real exacerbation of a need to be protected from debt collectors, and then for immigration clients, a real need to get their work authorization as quickly as possible so that they could try to access some income because our undocumented clients were not eligible for any of the federal benefits that came down during COVID. So we really needed to get them legal work authorization as quickly as possible.
Her Justice released its report towards justice for parents in child support courts in March of 2021. What did your research conclude?
That was our first original research publication out of the organization. And we’ve been leaning more and more into our policy work generally because we’ve been around for 28 years. And after talking to women living in poverty for 28 years, we’ve developed a pretty good sense of where the systems need to change to improve outcomes for all women situated like our clients. So that was the first time we did our own research. And again, in the before times decided to really dig into child support because in New York City, in child support proceedings, about 95% of the litigants do not have lawyers. It is not set up as a proceeding that demands lawyers. But the reality is that child support proceedings, as I’ve said before, are really essential for our clients. Child support can often represent 40% of income for a woman living in poverty. And we wanted to see what happened in those proceedings because since so few lawyers are present, it really isn’t known to the general public.
So we enlisted the army of court watchers, including volunteer attorneys from law firms, law students, and others to watch over 750 court proceedings when they were still happening in person and really capture some basic information about what was going on in those proceedings. And then enlisted the assistance of Anchor Consulting, which is a consulting company and we have a member of that firm on our board. That was another great pro bono example of them taking their data analysis skills and pointing them at the data that we had collected. After watching all of the proceedings and analyzing the data, we came up with some pretty basic information that sort of underlined our instinct, but is now supported by data, which is that when those litigants do have attorneys, the cases are more efficient. So people, oftentimes cases are getting adjourned because litigants don’t have the basic documents prepared that the courts need to proceed.
And often that’s because it’s just overwhelming. These documents, I mean, think about what it feels like to look at your own tax form. It is not the document you’re most eager to complete. You have to complete financial disclosure affidavits when you’re doing child support proceedings. And for a lot of people that’s really intimidating. If English isn’t their first language it’s overwhelming. And they’re really afraid about how to fill that out and afraid to get it wrong. So without assistance, oftentimes cases get adjourned again and again, because all litigants don’t have the proper paperwork. Once they have an attorney assigned to them, the attorney can absolutely help them complete that paperwork and the case moves forward more efficiently, which is great for the litigant who may get access to the income they need faster. And it’s great for the courts because it doesn’t overburden them with unnecessary court appearances.
So we really found data that supported the need to look again at this child support process. The child support cases represent the majority of the cases the family court hears. They move forward slowly and unnecessarily slowly because that means that the courts are clogged and the litigants are not getting income. So we are going to be moving forward with some recommendations out of this report, hopefully working with the court system to see how we can better look at those systems so that they’re efficient for the courts and efficient for our clients. And that we meet our own goals of ensuring the parents pay as much as they can afford to support their children, which really should be the outcome here. Child support is for children at the end of the day. And we want to make sure that they are supported well, especially in this post COVID recovery time.
What’s on the horizon for Her Justice?
So many things. We’ve been leaning into our policy work. So we’re really looking forward at taking on some more policy projects for ourselves. And the law firms really enjoy partnering with us on that as well. So not only taking individual cases, which they do, but we when we do policy work, they also can do memos of law for us. They can do cross state analyses, for example, on the child support work, looking and helping us understand how do other states handle child support. Are there models out there? We might be able to look to in New York to make our own systems work better? We also are leaning a little bit more into our trafficking practice. So a lot of people may not know that most people who practice in the area of intimate partner violence have some knowledge of trafficking as well, because there’s a real overlap in terms of how that appears to us.
If we have a woman who comes in for example, and says that her boyfriend is controlling, is abusive to her and makes her do she doesn’t want to do, that may first present quote unquote, simply as an intimate partner violence case. But if you dig a little deeper, sometimes you may find out that the person she’s referring to as her boyfriend is actually her trafficker. And when you get more information to find out how she got into the situation she’s into, you discover that this person might be eligible for other remedies under the trafficking law, both state and federal. So we’ve handled a few trafficking cases in the past if they’ve come to our attention. Now we have a new fellow brought to us by Kirkland and Ellis fellowship program who is really going to be able to dig into making sure we’re screening as many cases as we should for trafficking.
And this fellow also is a fluent Mandarin speaker and so it will enable us to reach more competently into the Chinese community to try to help folks. And then I would be remiss as an executive director if I didn’t also say that in the fall, we’re relaunching a fundraising campaign called Shift the Power, which is our tagline, and that’s going to be launching in October. And it’s really a call to action to raise $600,000 by the end of the calendar year, which results in nearly $5 million in legal services going towards our clients. And we invite everybody to look for that, to follow us on social media, of course, and to see if they want to participate in that Shift the Power, because sometimes people have no time to give, but if they have the time to write a check, we really appreciate that too. We manage to give over $42 million worth in legal services back into the community and that’s through volunteerism and contributions. So those are some of the things on the horizon at Her Justice.
This program is called “Reinventing Legal.” How does your work further that objective?
As a person, as opposed to as the ED of Her Justice, I will say there’s a lot to reinvented legal. I love being a lawyer, but I think it’s a very traditional profession. And I know that you focus a lot on technology. That’s a place where the law world can move and is moving, which is really exciting to see. For us at Her Justice, what we really reinvent is this notion of pro bono and thinking about where pro bono is appropriate and what is the strength of pro bono? Pro bono has grown in importance over the past 15 years. And because we spend all of our time on it because we’re a pro bono focused organization, we can think really carefully about where is the best place to put these valuable resources, which are attorneys, high powered attorneys willing to volunteer their time?
So we look at how can we resource the attorneys better? How can we make the best match of cases for volunteer attorneys? The town halls we’ve done over the last year, which talk about what is it like for clients like our clients living through COVID, has been a real way to reinvent how the law firms think about the work that they do, because it’s not just spending time with one person who needs a lawyer, although they do that too, but it puts into context, why does that person need a lawyer? What are the systemic barriers that that woman of color living in poverty has faced throughout her life that has resulted in her being unable to access an attorney when she should have a right to an attorney? The way we rethink pro bono is thinking of it as a systems change lever as well as a way to get actual matching one to one lawyers with women living in poverty who need lawyers.
I’m, Ari Kaplan. And it has been my honor to speak with Amy Barasch, the executive director of Her Justice for this issue of “Reinventing Legal.” Amy, Thanks so very much.
Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
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