BY PAUL SERRITELLA
Celebrating its 90th anniversary, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau hosted a panel discussion entitled “Domestic Violence, Poverty and the Legal System,” on Saturday, October 23. Filling the Ames Courtroom, the event brought past and present Bureau members together on the 90th anniversary of the Bureau’s incorporation, and was held as part of the Law School’s fall alumni reunion weekend.
Established in March of 1913 and chartered as a Massachusetts charitable corporation in 1914, the Bureau is the oldest student-run legal services office in the country. It is composed of forty-four second and third year law students who practice as student attorneys, providing free legal services to low-income people in Middlesex and Suffolk counties.
Featuring four of the nation’s leading legal advocates of battered women – all of whom are Bureau alumnae and some of whom have also been Clinical Instructors at the Bureau, the panelists’ varying approaches showed that domestic violence is a social illness that often avoids both diagnosis and cure.
“[Domestic violence is a] frustrating, difficult problem… and some of your clients will not survive,” stated Lois Kanter (’76), Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Institute and Clinical Professor at Northeastern University School of Law.
Sarah Buel (’90), Clinical Professor at the University of Texas Law School and founder of its Domestic Violence Clinic, spoke of attempting to provide a “holistic response” to domestic violence through her University of Texas clinic – recruiting students to help their clients run errands and keep their lives together while the case against the batterer continued. “We want to wrap the victim in services,” she said of her program.
Formerly of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Domestic Violence Division and now an attorney at The Rachel Coalition, Suzanne Groisser (’91) gave the perspective of the law enforcement community in fighting domestic violence when all the victim wants is for the violence to stop. She spoke of the “dueling interests” in deciding whether to jail a batterer to protect the victim, or letting him remain free to maintain some contact with his family and children. Groisser was frank about the difficulty of finding a solution, especially as batterers themselves are increasingly savvy about the legal system and can use it to block their victim’s own attempts to get justice.
Despite these challenges, each panelist has had decades of success in fighting for the rights of domestic violence survivors. As noted by Kanter, at the time that she was a Clinical Instructor at the Bureau, “domestic violence was not really an issue” and police were often unwilling to interfere in abusive household relationships. The massive project of legal and social reform – changing laws, improving police responses to domestic violence, and changing public awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence – were due largely to the efforts of law students, including Buel and Groisser, who sought a new legal regime to encompass domestic violence.
Now, Kanter commented, there are many services available, from legal services to counseling to restraining orders, which can assist victims. Indeed, Kanter voiced the concern that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction – domestic violence has become a law-enforcement problem exclusively, with batterers often being jailed for long periods despite the wishes or needs of the victim.
The panelists also noted the need for greater involvement by the legal community as a whole – Groisser called for more litigators to take on domestic violence cases at the appellate level, when many local service providers are no longer able to provide effective assistance. Buel pointed to the lack of basic education about available services for domestic violence survivors, and her attempts to get other legal services and community organizations stocked with the necessary information.
Moderated by Mithra Merryman (’93), a current Bureau Clinical Instructor and former attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, the panel also included Ann Shalleck (’78), a clinician at American University’s Washington College of Law and Director of its Women and the Law Program. But despite its serious theme, the spirits of both panelists and audience were high. At one point, Sarah Buel told of an encounter with an opposing counsel who accused her of “practicing out-of-control advocacy for battered women” – prompting enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
The panel was followed by a reception for Bureau alumni and students. The reception began with comments by Dean Elena Kagan, and introduced the Bureau’s new Alumni Advisory Board, which serves an advisory role to the Bureau’s student Board of Directors and acts as a link between students, Bureau alumni, and the Law School administration. The Board, chaired by Douglas Schwarz (’86), a partner at Bingham McCutcheon in New York, includes Stefanie Balandis (’93), a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services; Meredith J. Kane (’82), a partner at Paul Weiss in New York and member of the World Trade Center Memorial Center Advisory Committee; Sharmila Murthy (’03), a Skadden Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands; and Professor Peter Murray (’67), Harvard’s Edward R. Johnson Lecturer on Law and Robert Braucher Visting Professor of Law from Practice and the Bureau’s Faculty Director.
In addition, the reception featured the presentation of two Distinguished Alumni Awards. The award recipients, Robert Williams (’75) and Beth Parker (’82), were selected by the Bureau’s Alumni Advisory Board from among a dozen nominees. The Board honored Williams, Director of Florida Legal Services’ Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, and Parker a partner at Bingham McCutcheon in San Francisco and a leading advocate of women’s rights, for their outstanding, career-long commitment to public service.
In perhaps the most stirring moment of the evening, Williams, in accepting his award, told of representing migrant workers after law school in a storefront office with no bathroom and no staff member who had lasted more than a year. Mr. Williams said that it was his training from the Bureau that equipped him to carry on, even as he saw other lawyers without such training failing at the same task.
The event’s attendees were united in their praise of the preparation for their careers they received at the Bureau- teaching creativity and problem solving skills which carried over into later practice. Each one also noted the unity that the Bureau fostered in its members.
“The energy I felt when I was at law school, I felt when I came here today,” said Groisser, “[it’s] the can-do nature of what you do at the Legal Aid Bureau.”
Buel agreed. “I have goose bumps… I feel like I am home.”