Q&A with Amy Barasch of Her Justice

Amy Barasch is the Executive Director of Her Justice, a nonprofit that connects over 8,000 low-income women and children to private attorneys every year. Amy has devoted most of her career to the issue of intimate partner violence through her work at nonprofits, government agencies and law firms.

Q. You’ve dedicated your career to assisting women living in poverty. Was this an issue you were passionate about before becoming a lawyer or was it an area that you stumbled upon as a young attorney?

I took a seven-year gap between college and law school where I did a couple of different things before I ultimately decided that I wanted to go to law school: I went to graduate school for art history for a little over a semester; I worked as a journalist and translator; and I lived in Paris for three years. Doing a variety of things helped me realize that I wanted to have an impact on a day-to-day basis, so I started law school knowing I ultimately wanted to do social justice work. I was also very interested in women’s issues generally. While doing domestic violence work seems an obvious path today if you are interested in women’s issues and public interest work, since the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed while I was in law school, it was an exciting field at the time, so it was a great moment of opportunity for me.

Q. Tell us a little more about your career path. Has each step been part of a master plan?

Absolutely not. Working at Her Justice makes my chaotic work history make sense in retrospect, but it was not a straight line. During my seven-year gap before law school, I was in an information-gathering phase, and I realized that I really care about policy and effecting change. After law school, I worked at a law firm, ran an order of protection clinic for Pace Law School in Westchester, spend some time at a public interest law firm, worked in city government, and worked in state government. Throughout those roles, I have seen how the law operates from a lot of different angles, and it has really helped me as a policy thinker. There are real people who are impacted by broad policies, and it is hard to understand that connection deeply if you have not worked on the ground with the kinds of people that would be affected by your policies.

Q. Have you had any experiences that influence the way you navigate gender dynamics in the workplace?

The most interesting gender dynamic I experienced was working in government, where most of my bosses were women, but we were reporting up a public safety chain of command that was composed of mostly men, many of whom carried badges. There was often an assumption that if the issue on the table was about families or victimization, you would ask the women in the room, but if the issue was aggressive policing or prisoner re-entry, you would defer to the men. What I learned early on is that I should give myself permission to speak in the room and not self-censor regardless of the topic on the table. I became fairly knowledgeable about criminal justice policy, so I had an experienced opinion that was worth stating, and I found the room was usually pretty receptive.

Q. One debate we’ve heard quite a bit lately is whether women should modify their speech habits in a professional setting so as to project more confidence—saying “sorry” less or avoiding the words “like” or “just.” Do you have a view on this? Have you ever felt compelled to adopt any similar strategies?

Certainly women have come up with certain behavioral and speech habits that we can try to be self-aware of, but whether you start your sentence with an “uhm” should not matter. If the content of the speech is useful and constructive, women should not necessarily be expected to change the way we operate. Instead, we need to appreciate that everybody has a different way of communicating based on gender, background, or any other number of factors. I do not think I have had to change the way in which I communicate, but I do try to remember that I should identify when it is the right opportunity to be heard on a certain issue and to speak up. I think we could all learn to project with confidence, but it is also true that women might do all the right things and still not get the attention that they deserve, so really it is about pushing the responsibility back on everybody else to hear good ideas no matter how they are expressed.

Q. In what ways have you been influenced by your clients at Her Justice?

The most important lesson I’ve learned from my clients is humility. The law cannot solve all of our clients’ problems, and we’re lucky if it solves even one. Often times, especially when you’re a younger lawyer, you go in saying ‘I’m going to save this person.’ You want to do good—and that’s a great motivator—but the reality is that people’s lives are really complicated. Even if you do the best possible job using the law as a tool, there are other factors that you can’t change. So the result isn’t always going to be exactly what your client wants because the situation isn’t going to permit it. Learning humility in terms of what you can in fact accomplish makes you better at communicating with your client because you are going to set appropriate expectations. There’s nothing worse than bringing your client in and saying ‘we’re going to win custody for you,’ but then because there are just too many external factors, you can’t get it done.

When I was litigating in Family Court, people would often say to me, in this kind of supportive, but slightly condescending tone, “Oh that’s so good of you. Those stories must be so hard to hear.” And I would respond that it’s not hard because of the clients. The clients are amazing and are actually what makes the job worth doing. It’s the system that’s really horrible. Yes, there are awful stories, but the good news is that the client is coming to me so that I can try to turn that story around. What’s exhausting about representing people who are disempowered is that you can’t always turn the tables to get them what they deserve. The system isn’t designed for that.

Q. Tell us about how Her Justice is structured.

We are uniquely what I call pro bono first. We are not a traditional legal services office; because most of the representation we offer to our clients is provided by volunteers, we can spend a lot more time making sure that the volunteer opportunities meet the needs and the time that volunteers have. We really think strategically about limited scope representation. If a litigated divorce is too much for a volunteer attorney to take on, for example, then we carve out a piece and have the attorney work on that. We come up with different shapes and sizes of pro bono opportunities.

It’s an exciting time to be thinking about this and to be thinking outside of the traditional legal services pro bono box. I love working with the more junior folks because they are more creative than I am, so they imagine different ways to solve these problems. And among the newer generation of professionals, there is much more emphasis on giving back and integrating your desire to make the world a better place with your day job. Pro bono provides that opportunity.

Q. It sounds like an interesting puzzle.

It is. And it’s part of a larger conversation being held nationally: How should we think about access to justice? Does everyone really need a lawyer all the time? Are there alternatives to full legal representation that are not only sufficient but actually affirmatively better solutions? Child support is a perfect example. It may not always need to be handled in the court system. Some issues can be resolved by people trained in a particular area so that folks get good advice, just not necessarily from attorneys. I’m sort of making a statement against interest, but I would love to put ourselves out of business.

Q. What sorts of hardships has the Coronavirus pandemic posed for women and children living in poverty? How is Her Justice responding to those new or increased needs?

Our clients are among the group most heavily impacted by the virus. Many have lost jobs or have partners that have lost jobs, which means their household income has decreased. Some of our clients may be working off the books, which means that if they lose their job, they are not eligible for unemployment insurance or other federal resources. One client, for example, worked for a dry cleaning company, but the owner of the dry cleaning company contracted COVID-19 and passed away, causing the business to close its doors and our client to lose her job. She not only has a daughter battling cancer, but she also doesn’t have health insurance. This is just one of the many stories we have encountered where a client was on the edge pre-pandemic, and COVID-19 has just exacerbated their pre-existing problems.

Another obstacle we’re helping with is the adjustment to the new normal. The family court system that handles hundreds of thousands of cases every year has had to shift quickly to a virtual reality. We’ve had to help clients through tasks such as how to appear remotely and how to file documents. In addition, new child support cases have not been able to be filed since the beginning of the pandemic until fairly recently. And in the instances where cases are being filed, they not moving forward, so there’s a huge backlog. We are working each day with clients to navigate the new system, and our volunteer attorneys have played a large role helping guide clients through it all.

We are also using social media platforms to get information out to litigants. That might be information regarding family courts, for example, or what resources are immediately available to assist clients, such as our helpline, which has been inundated with calls throughout the pandemic.

Q. What’s on the horizon? Is Her Justice planning ahead for what happens after the pandemic?

Our biggest focus has been preparing clients to hit the ground running when the courts are back to operating at their typical pace. A lot of the work we do for our clients requires significant preparation and coordination between our attorneys and clients—preparing paperwork, collecting and compiling documentation, and the like.

We also will be coming out with a report that captures the experience of child support litigants. For example, between 90-95% of people who go into child support hearings aren’t represented by a lawyer. That’s how the procedure was initially designed, but it often leaves litigants at a disadvantage. We have compiled a report detailing the current experience of pro se litigants based on observation of over 850 court appearances. We asked questions about the outcomes, as well as about procedural justice—did the litigants seem to understand what was going on? Were they represented by a lawyer? Did the judge inform the litigants about their rights?

We view the pandemic as a perfect time to release the data. It provides insight into proceedings in a pre-pandemic world, and is an opening for a conversation toward reopening in a better, fairer and more streamlined manner that will help both the court and litigants.

Q. Have your volunteer lawyers and the organizations you collaborate with been interested in policy work during the pandemic? What other kinds of opportunities are available for volunteers?

We have found that volunteer lawyers and organizations have been very responsive during the pandemic. We recently sent out a call for assistance on an immigration policy project and it was the largest and quickest response to that sort of call that we’ve gotten in a long time. I think there’s a general feeling of wanting to help.

We are always looking for volunteers. Whether it’s coming up with revenue generating strategies, policy work or helping to update the manuals our volunteer attorneys rely on, all are important and valued tasks that meaningfully help the organization. You also don’t need to be a lawyer to get involved. If you’re an HR professional you could advise one of our clients on work-related issues, print shops can help print materials, and we can always use more translators to help with our clients. We are open to and looking for partners who we can engage with in ways we haven’t previously.

Elie Worenklein and Angie Freeland are associates in Debevoise’s New York office.

Copy-edited by associates Jordana Palgon and Erik Rubinstein.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.