Law Student Review Article-August 2008
1L Summer Volunteering: Life-Changing Law at the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s Domestic Violence Project
Author: Kymiya St. Pierre
Before the excitement and anguish of 1L had the time to congeal into a permanent scar on my psyche, I confronted a new challenge: a lack of summer employment. Those friends who had decided to be productive during the summer had already started jobs, and those who craved one last summer of leisure were already sending me postcards from exotic locales. Suddenly jobless and friendless, I decided to join the Los Angeles County Bar Association in search of a good job opportunity and the chance to meet new people and make some new friends.
The first week as a member, I received an email describing a volunteer opportunity at the LACBA’s Domestic Violence Project at the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Convinced it was a sign from the employment gods, I immediately sent an email to the directing attorney, Deborah Kelly. She asked me to come in the following day for an interview.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked through the doors into Department 8, the offices of the Domestic Violence Project. The reception room was filled with people of both sexes and all ages, from children to the elderly. Some bore obvious signs of abuse: black eyes, bruises, swollen lips. Others carried more subtle signs, which I learned to identify later: the look of total defeat, the loss of self.
A little wary now but still determined, I made my way to the front and asked for Deborah. In a place where joy seemed nowhere in sight, there came just that: hope and happiness, in the cheerful, confident demeanor of Deborah Kelly. She was down-to-earth with a ready smile and a quick wit, a person clearly at ease both befriending the suffering poor and battling for their rights in the confrontational halls of justice. With me, she was friendly and to the point. She explained that I would be helping victims of domestic violence by preparing the legal papers necessary for them to obtain a temporary restraining order. She explained that although it’s a very rewarding experience, it can also be very difficult emotionally, because it is easy to be drawn into the victims’ suffering and feel their pain in your own heart. After the interview, she had me observe fellow volunteers working with clients so I could see what I would be doing.
I immediately realized the volunteers do much more than merely fill in pages, check off boxes, take declarations, or transcribe histories. Like a counselor or psychologist, they help the victims reveal their heartbreaking stories—get them to open up and recount their ordeals in the details and chronologies required by law. As such, they are often the victims’ only outlet for their anguish—often the only ones who ever heard their life’s story and experiences, or at least who had done so without passing judgment or leveling criticism. It is often a cathartic process that produces tears of relief from the victim and tears of sympathy from the volunteer—the emotional impact Deborah told of. For the victim, relief comes from realizing someone in the world actually cares about them and their lives and miseries. It validates them as a human being who has worth to themselves and to others, and who deserves help and protection. I saw even that small connection to another person give victims hope for the first time and the perception that there might yet be happiness in their lives.
Listening to those heart-wrenching stories—real stories from real people as compared to the paper “petitioners” and “respondents” I spent the last nine months reading about—proved one of the most difficult challenges of my first year of law school, and it occurred outside of school at a real-world law practice. It proved a pivotal moment in my life because it made me want to take action and put the law to actual use instead of just memorizing it for a test. Rather than shut my casebook and use it as a makeshift pillow, I wanted to sit behind a computer and take an active role helping the next victim—which is exactly what I did. By lunch, I had observed two different clients and worked with one on my own. By the end of summer, it was second nature for me to take charge and assist clients. I attribute that success both to my passion to help people in need and to the first-rate training I received that gave me the skills and confidence to launch myself into that role.
The Domestic Violence Project is an ideal place to cement the skills of self-confidence and leadership, in large part because of the high number of clients in need of help. The high-volume traffic forces you to trust your instincts when deciding how to correctly fill out the forms and write the declaration. Fortunately, when I did have questions, the directing attorney and other staff members proved invaluable assets to the Project, and were able to answer any and all of my questions. (I think I asked about one hundred questions my first day. I was certain I would either be asked to leave, or see a burst of balloons and confetti, when I asked my hundredth question. Neither happened, but I did learn a lot, and everyone knew my name by the end of the day.) After about two weeks, I was professional enough to be asked to check the work of the new volunteers—who included practicing attorneys. That is when the leadership skills really kicked in.
Another great benefit from the Project was that I was able to practice (and improve) my Spanish-speaking skills. I studied Spanish in school and for one year abroad, but had few opportunities to put it to use after returning from Spain—least of all, to put it to any life-changing good. At the Domestic Violence Project, I handled clients who spoke only Spanish. They really appreciated being able to express themselves in their native language, while I appreciated the chance to practice Spanish again, and to speak “legal” Spanish. I was even able to utilize my third language—Farsi—when a Persian woman came in and no Farsi translator was available. “Kymiya, I need you to translate” I hear Deborah say. The other volunteers, court staff, and even the client’s mouth dropped when I—the young, blonde, green-eyed California beach girl—approached the client and began speaking Farsi. (My mother is Persian but I favor my light-skinned American father.) Although speaking multiple languages is not a requirement, it definitely proved a plus for myself as well as the clients. I highly recommend the job if you are bi- or multi-lingual and want to experience the personal satisfaction of putting all your language skills to the best possible use.
One client I helped had been horribly beaten by her boyfriend and his two sisters. She came in with a swollen eye and multiple bruises on her arms. As she told me her story, tears welled in both our eyes. I helped her file the restraining orders against her boyfriend and his sisters, and even walked her through the courthouse to each department she needed to visit. During these walks, we talked about her problems and even joked about life and the court system. I was amazed at her emotional strength. Even after everything she had been through, she was willing to come back two days in a row to get all the paperwork filed, trek the labyrinth of the courthouse from department to department, and still laugh that she felt “famosa” because of all the different papers she had to sign. She showed me that even though humans can do horrible things to one another, we also have the ability to lift ourselves up and triumph over these challenges. She received all three orders.
Some friends asked why I decided to spend my summer listening to heart-wrenching tales of abuse—the question often accompanied by a look that said, “You’re crazy.” Why did I stay at the Project the entire summer, when most of my friends were exalting in tall, shiny buildings with views of downtown, or swimming in crystal-clear waters off the coast of Costa Rica? The answer is that my first morning at the Domestic Violence Project, hearing the horrible things done to these victims, and seeing the worst that some humans are capable of, compelled me to do something to stop it all and help the suffering victims. I realized I could help bring out the best in people: strength, determination, self-confidence, and, sometimes, even laughter. When I realized that I could make an actual difference—even if it was for just a moment, when I horribly mispronounced a word and caused both a mother and her little daughter to laugh, or got a battered victim a few years of protection with a permanent restraining order—I knew there would be no other thing I would rather do during my summer.
Or my 2L winter, for that matter.