By: Carolina Kupferman (2L)
My legs were shaking under me as I stood up in front of the judge to give my opening statement. My speech in front of me, an assortment of possible objections jotted down on post-it notes, and a 3-inch binder of documents I scoured for days were my only available weapons.
After just a few weeks at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau I had my first trial. I had only three weeks of Evidence class under my belt, plus one motion hearing I argued in front of a judge. Yet, here I stood, the “first chair” in a divorce case that included issues ranging from financial assets to child custody, visitation, and support. My case involved a woman whose husband had physically and psychologically abused her for the past two decades. He had threatened to kill her, repeatedly slammed her head into a car, stalked her, frequently punched her, and more. They had moved together into his mother’s large Newton home that was going to one day be theirs, and his name had gone on the home along with his mother’s. The day after she moved out of the home to escape the abuse, he moved thousands of dollars from their joint bank account; weeks later he transferred the home into a trust in solely his mother’s name. My client barely had an income, and had to take care of two children, one with disabilities.
In the weeks prior to trial, I worked closely with my client, hearing the story as she told it, as she had lived it. Listening to her carefully describe each and every attack against her, each slandering term he screamed at her, I saw her strength. I saw how she had given up everything to make a better life for her children, and how her husband was trying to take it all from her. We practiced questioning her and tried to prepare her for how cross-examination would feel.
After she went home, my trial team—which included my 3L co-counsel and my clinical instructor—stayed at the office until the early hours of the morning for days in a row looking through documents, searching for inconsistencies, conceptualizing the financial fraud, and picturing every instance of abuse.
On the day of trial, we argued that the house and bank account were marital assets and our client deserved 50% of the equity in the house and the 401K, and the money removed from their bank account. I remember the trial as a whirlwind, and found it particularly amusing to sit in class afterwards on lectures of black-letter evidence law that I had learned through my baptism by fire.
Months later, we received the judgment. As I read through each paragraph, I could not believe the words on the page. My client obtained 60% of her ex-husband’s 401K from the time of their marriage, 50% of the money taken from the joint bank account, a favorable custody/visitation/support arrangement and 50% of the significant equity in the house. I cannot describe how wonderful it felt to read the judgment and then show the result to my client.
It is often very difficult to be a student-attorney. When everyone else has finished class and can relax, you are still thinking about your cases and your clients. The burden rests on your shoulders, and if you mess up, it is someone’s actual life at risk. Now, the husband’s attorney has filed a Notice of Appeal. HLAB has been retained to defend the judgment through the appellate process.
Sometimes you wish you did not have that responsibility, but when you see the positive results you can bring about, the change you can bring to someone’s life, it makes it all worthwhile. All the work. All the stress. All the crazy hours. All the practice and preparation. It was all worth it.