Clinical and Pro Bono Programs

Providing clinical and pro bono opportunities to Harvard Law School students

Tag: Family & Domestic Violence Law Clinic

“They Don’t Teach You This in Law School,” Moments in the Domestic Violence and Family Law Clinic

By: Tara Louise Casey, LL.M. ’19

Tara Louise Casey LL.M. ’19

As an LL.M. student who has recently finished my primary law degree in Ireland – where there is not a great amount of emphasis on practical legal  education – I was eager to explore clinical and pro-bono opportunities at Harvard. I had previously studied domestic violence from an academic perspective and completed an internship at a prominent family law firm in Dublin so a clinical program that combined the two sounded like a perfect fit.

While I had previously participated in a clinical program at the University of Texas while studying abroad there during my primary law degree, working at the Legal Services Center (LSC) was unlike anything I had done before. From the very beginning, my supervisor Nnena Odim made it clear that the cases I would be working on would be my own, that I would be responsible for the vast majority of the case – keeping the client up to date, getting information from them, communicating and negotiating with opposing counsel and representing the client in court. Being thrown into the deep-end was at first rather intimidating, but the community spirit at LSC was a great help. Surrounded by other law students – some in the Domestic Violence/Family Law Clinic, some in other clinics, some returning students, some first-timers like me – I quickly got to grips with drafting documents in the correct form, who to call at the court house for certain information and appropriate tones to take with opposing counsel, parties and my own clients on the phone.

My favorite aspect of the clinic was without doubt meeting with the clients. Before our meetings, I would generally read up on their case and try to ascertain where they were at procedurally, what was the most recent thing they had asked for and what further information we needed to get from them for our next filings with the court. I often thought about my academic study of domestic violence, trying to remind myself to keep in mind its multi-faceted nature. When I met with the clients, however, oftentimes all of my forethought would go out the window. There would be a new issue we had never heard about before – she had received a document from the court that did not make sense,  the visitation  arrangement for her child  was drastically different from that ordered by the court or she had a separate legal issue that could be dealt with by other clinics at LSC. These were classic “they don’t teach you this at law school” moments and I relished them. The skills that would come out of these interactions, I have come to learn, are some of the most fundamental that any lawyer can have – adaptability, understanding and basic people skills.

While it was fantastic to have the opportunity as a law student to speak to a judge as an authorized student attorney and argue on behalf of my client against seasoned opposing counsel, it was the meetings with clients where we could chat about what was going on in their lives now, what they wanted and what it was that I could do to help them achieve their goals that stand out as the highlights of my clinical experience at Harvard.


Beyond a Judicial Philosophy: My Time in the Harvard Mediation Program

By Lauren Godles J.D. ’17

Lauren Godles J.D. '17

Lauren Godles J.D. ’17

In law school, we spend three years studying cases, with the expectation that by the end, we will develop a personal judicial philosophy. This judicial philosophy will consist of a set of legal principles and preferred modes of interpretation that will guide our analysis of legal issues for years to come. While I would say that my legal philosophy has certainly evolved during my time at HLS, perhaps even more important is the “human philosophy” I have developed through my experiences at the Harvard Mediation Program (HMP).

I trained as a mediator during my very first semester at HLS, and I immediately clicked with the members and their way of thinking. The people I met in HMP were kind and thoughtful. They had arrived at law school wanting to spend time learning how to listen. On the first day of training, we learned about the core principles of the program: self-determination, informed consent, and neutrality. It was the self-determination piece that made the most lasting impression on me. Because of HMP’s commitment to self-determination, as mediators, we don’t suggest solutions to parties in court. Rather, we provide a safe, open forum where litigants feel heard and brainstorm solutions that will work best for them.

At HMP, we teach mediators about the power of self-determination through the parable of a parent with two children fighting over an orange. The parent, desperate to stop the fighting, suggests cutting the orange in half and giving a half to each child. However, when the children continue to protest, the parent instead asks why each child wants the orange. Then, the children reveal that one wants to eat the fruit and the other wants to use the rind to make a cake. Only by inquiring about the children’s interests does the parent help them reach a solution that is better than the one initially proposed. Sometimes, during mediation, I have felt like the parent. The parties may be close to reaching an agreement and I have to refrain from suggesting they split the difference. I realize that is what I must do because so often there is an underlying interest that is causing the continued disagreement, and I know that the problem won’t be resolved until the parties are ready to ready to address that interest directly.

I have internalized the lessons I have learned about self-determination and incorporated them into other areas of my life, including my work at the Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic housed at the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain. For example, after hearing about the abuse my clients endured at the hand of a spouse, my gut reaction is to try to prevent that spouse from spending time with the clients’ children. However, sometimes my clients want their partners to spend time with the children, because the partner is good with the kids or my client thinks a continued relationship with two parents will be beneficial. Even though this is sometimes hard for me to accept, I value my client’s self-determination and trust they are making the right decision.

Finally, I have carried the lessons of HMP into my personal relationships. In fact, my partner likes to refer to it as “mediation black magic” when I ask him open-ended questions about why he wants to buy a boat, rather than telling him he can’t. All jokes aside, I know that making a daily commitment to self-determination has made my relationships stronger. Since my mediation training, I have tried my best to put faith in people’s abilities to understand their situations and come up with solutions that best address their needs. As I think about graduation and what lies ahead, I know my judicial philosophy will serve me well as an attorney. But even more importantly, I know that the human philosophy I formed through HMP will make me a better person and member of the legal community.

Housing Law Clinic: fighting housing displacement and insecurity

By Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16

Credit: Brooks Kraft

Credit: Brooks Kraft
Catherine Peyton Humphreville, J.D. ’16 and Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh

Working with homeless and street-involved youth as a legal intern at the Urban Justice Center’s Peter Cicchino Youth Project after my first year of law school, I saw that many of my clients first encountered legal troubles when they became homeless. After arriving back at school that fall semester, I set out to use legal tools to prevent homelessness and housing insecurity before it started. With that goal in mind, I enrolled in the Housing Law Clinic.

During my first semester, I worked on eviction cases. I learned about the unsafe housing conditions faced by many of Boston’s low-income residents and how to use the housing code and consumer protection law to fight these conditions. I also saw how domestic violence exacerbates housing crises and learned to work in tandem with the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic to help my client’s family. As a continuing clinical student during the Spring 2015 semester, I wrote an appellate brief in a foreclosure case, representing a single mother who had been fighting for her home for eight years, and attended weekly meetings at City Life/Vida Urbana, an anti-displacement community organizing group blocks from the Legal Services Center. Both semesters, I was able to forge close working relationships with clients through one-on-one meetings while also developing my writing skills and substantive knowledge of foreclosure law under the close supervision of Lecturer on Law Maureen McDonagh and Clinical Instructor Julia Devanthery.

I came to law school in part to advocate for women and LGBTQ people. By participating in the Attorney for the Day program at Boston Housing Court, I saw that it was primarily women and people of color facing eviction, who almost always had no access to legal representation and I began to see housing security as a feminist and anti-racist issue. I hope to be able to use the litigation and client-interviewing skills I learned in the Housing Law Clinic together with the transactional skills I garnered in two semesters with the Community Enterprise Project to fight housing insecurity and displacement in New York after completing a clerkship.


Out of the classroom and into the courtroom

Suria Bahadue, J.D. ’16 

Suria Bahadue, J.D. '16

Suria Bahadue, J.D. ’16

I came to Harvard Law School because I want to help people. Previously, I worked as a paralegal at a large law firm. In that role, I worked on pro bono cases involving clients seeking restraining orders. Fortunately, my supervisors gave me substantial responsibilities, which included meeting domestic violence survivors, hearing their stories, and helping them write their affidavits. My supervising attorney and I won every case, leaving each client in a better position than before and fueling my desire to continue this work in law school.

Unfortunately, I lost sight of that purpose during 1L year. As one could imagine, my first year immediately subsumed me with grades, job applications and ideas of clerkships. My monotonous run through the law school grind ended, however, when I spent two semesters working in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic.

I initially enrolled in the clinic because I felt my experiences as a paralegal prepared me well for family law cases. At the same time, I assumed that I would assist a supervising attorney rather than manage my own cases and clients. I was so happy to be wrong. On day one, I received my own cases and clients. My supervising attorney, Nnena Odim, instructed that it was my job to move the cases forward to resolution.


Nnena Odim, Senior Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law

My caseload included divorces, paternity actions, and restraining orders. Each day began the same: I would meet with Nnena and review each case’s posture. For each case, Nnena would conclude our strategy meeting by asking me about the “next steps.” By doing this, she taught me to develop as many options as I could and to prepare for a judge to ask me about every single one.

In short, Nnena taught me that successful legal practice requires over-preparation.

Significantly, my cases challenged me to consider myself as a practicing attorney rather than a student attorney. I represented clients in court multiple times; filed complaints for divorce, modification of child support, and contempt; interacted with opposing parties; negotiated with opposing counsels; conducted a direct examination in court; obtained a restraining order for a client; and drafted and finalized a divorce settlement agreement. One of the more memorable courtroom experiences occurred in a post-judgment action for contempt. The judge began the hearing by stating, “Counselor, how would you like to proceed?” It took me a few seconds to realize that he was talking to me and that I was a counselor and not a student.

Above all, the biggest lessons came from my clients. Their tales of bravery and survival reinvigorated my personal and professional goals. For one example, I worked with a client over my two semesters. She had fled her abuser after five years of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and lived in shelters and public housing shortly thereafter. We helped her obtain a restraining order and file for divorce. Over the last year, I watched her achieve so many milestones because of her courage to flee and seek legal recourse: she obtained citizenship; entered into a criminal justice degree program; began a new job; and settled into her first apartment. That client and many others helped me return to the reason why I went to law school in the first place: to help people.

I am forever grateful to the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic and Nnena for taking me out of the classroom and into the courtroom. The experience truly defined my three years at Harvard Law School.

A sense of community and a chance to represent clients in court

By Alison Burton, J.D. ’16

Alison Burton, J.D. '16

Alison Burton, J.D. ’16

I have always been interested in women’s issues, including the power imbalances that help perpetuate domestic violence. As a college student, I volunteered at the University of Virginia Women’s Center and coordinated the legal clinic, which offered free legal services including advice relating to family law and domestic violence issues. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic gave me an opportunity to continue to advocate for victims of domestic violence.

At the clinic, students take on between four and eight cases involving protective orders, child custody and support, divorce, and collateral issues. Students are responsible for communicating with the client, drafting pleadings and motions, and representing the client in court. I really loved the chance to work with clients every day and being able to not only draft documents for court, but also represent clients in court many times. I was involved with the clinic for two semesters, and I went to court hearings four or five times each semester. The experience has been one of my highlights at Harvard Law School.

One of my favorite things about the clinic is the sense of community. From day one, the clinical instructors, Nnena Odim and Stephanie Davidson, constantly provide feedback and collaborate with students. Their feedback on the documents I drafted and on my performance in court taught me how to strategize effectively and how to zealously advocate for my clients. The students in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic also tend to be a close knit group. Getting to hear about their cases and working together as a clinical unit helped us in our brainstorming and problem solving abilities.

Overall, the clinical experience went above and beyond my expectations. While the cases moved along more slowly than I expected, I had far more client contact, feedback from supervisors, and time in court than I thought I would get. Working in the clinic gave me the chance to get outside of the Harvard Law School campus, get involved in a different community, and do work that impacts clients directly.

A clinic student confronts the challenges of family and domestic violence law


Kathryn Boulton, J.D. ’15

By Kathryn Boulton, J.D. ’15

Prior to joining the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, I had virtually no direct services experience to speak of. Much of my work in other courses and clinics had focused on broad, policy-based questions of an international character, e.g., how to promote legal abortion reform in Burma or the status of sexual and gender minorities under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Women’s rights and health have always been at the forefront of my interests, and indeed what led me to pursue a law degree.

The clinic provided an incredibly valuable contact and also challenged my expectations and skills. My cases primarily concerned divorce and all of the difficult questions that it poses: custody, child support, division of marital debts and assets, etc. In practice, these questions are not simply about the interpretation of a legal standard or figuring out the most logical way to divide up a particular asset. Rather, at an individual level, addressing these questions means gaining a truly intimate picture of a client’s life and goals: medical records, tax returns, outstanding loans owed to a family member, the reason for selecting a particular child daycare. At the same time that you are building this highly textured portrait of her life, you remain attentive to the bigger-picture questions: What does she envision moving forward? Where can she accept compromise? Where is her position non-negotiable? Her goals and the way she approaches litigation will be informed by the history of a complex (and often abusive) relationship. As her student attorney, it was my job to truly understand these experiences and priorities, and to represent them as zealously and ably as I could.

Although I intend to return to policy advocacy post-graduation, the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic has been an invaluable experience. It exposed me to new ways of thinking about the connection between the law and individual women’s experiences, and I will always be grateful for the way my clients opened their lives to me.

Clinic Student Advocates for Victims of Domestic Violence


Rebecca Wolozin, J.D. ’15

By Rebecca Wolozin, J.D. ’15

Last semester, I took a legal theory seminar in which we read some of the seminal works by American legal theorists that form the basis for what has evolved into our law today. As I sat in class trying to analyze the article with my classmates, the images and examples that came to mind were not only my own personal experiences, but also my clinical clients’ stories. My clinical education has been and continues to be a central part of my legal learning. Through clinical learning, I have gained a complex understanding of substantive areas of law, both “law in the books” and “law in practice,” and I have real experiences to draw upon to help me see the difference between “ought” and “is.”

In the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, I had the opportunity to advocate for women who are domestic violence survivors. These women make decisions every day, big and small, to avoid abuse. Many of these women decide not to ask for the little the law provides to avoid angering the men they are trying to leave. Other women want (and deserve) more than the law provides. In my biggest case, I worked with a client who is herself the subject of a wrongfully granted restraining order. Her husband has repeatedly used legal avenues to continue his control and abuse despite her having left and filed for divorce.

The wide gap between “is” and “ought” became painfully apparent when I went into court to argue against the extension of the restraining order. Although the standard required the judge to evaluate whether to continue the order by analyzing whether it was necessary to prevent continued abuse against the “victim”, the judge seemed to decide to extend the order “to avoid contention” for the duration of the divorce proceedings. At one point, he asked me whether granting the order to the husband against the wife wouldn’t actually protect both parties. I was, perhaps naively, stunned. But thanks to the urging of my clinical supervisor and my interest in changing the background rules and in educating those who apply them, we decided to appeal his decision. In addition to being legally incorrect, an important reason that we decided to appeal, and that our client supported and encouraged that decision, was to work towards better law that actually protects survivors from abuse.

The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic was the second of four different clinics I will work in during my time at HLS. This is strategic. I plan to work with children, and specifically with immigrant children. Working with this population requires knowledge and skills in a number of different “legal fields,” because for these children, family law problems, immigration problems, education problems, and others are all shades of the same color. As part of my strategy, I was a clinical student with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, the Florence Project in Arizona (an independent clinical placement with unaccompanied child immigrants) and the Child Advocacy Clinic (working in education law) this Spring. The ability to apply what I learn outside of clinics to my own legal practice is central to my own process of becoming the lawyer I hope to be.

I am of the opinion that the most exciting learning happens when my classes speak to each other, when I can play out conversations between professors who may have never spoken in my head, when my semester turns into a web of connections and links and winding paths to be followed to the next insight or deeper understanding of something I thought I understood. My experience as a clinical student has provided not only a different format for learning that promotes making these connections, but an excitement and a grounding purpose as I continue my legal studies. As I finish my final semester at HLS, and after having spent four years at Harvard pursuing a concurrent degree (a Masters in Education), my clinical experiences have been the glue that brings together the vast amount of knowledge I have worked so hard to accumulate. In the end, what is all that learning worth if it isn’t to understand how to live it?

More than Student Lawyers

Students in the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic manage all aspects of their cases. Under the supervision of Associate Director and Senior Clinical Instructor Nnena Odim, they conduct intake, provide advice, and represent clients in both Family and District Court in Massachusetts. They also draft pleadings, analyze discovery, negotiate with opposing counsel, and work with complex financial issues. These students are more than lawyers. They support clients through difficult and stressful experiences, and make a real impact on their lives.

This past academic year, four students – Alyssa Greenberg, J.D. ’15, Kathryn Mullen, J.D. ’15, Kate Aizpuru, J.D. ’14, and Lana Birbrair, J.D. ’15 – did just that.

Alyssa signed up for the clinic to get substantive litigation experience. “I was not disappointed,” she said. “I drafted complaints for divorce, motions for temporary orders, and discovery requests; I prepared to take depositions, led a negotiation, and represented my client at a hearing in Probate and Family court; I spoke to my clients regularly, counseling them and working with them to determine what course their case should take.” Alyssa’s work has helped women who were married to abusive husbands get the closure and financial support they needed.

For Kathryn, representing clients “has been deeply rewarding”. Kathryn represented a husband seeking a divorce. “This case was not only an excellent learning opportunity, but a good reminder that anyone can be a victim of domestic abuse,” she said. Kathryn’s client experienced great psychological distress, suffered serious health problems and was also in dire financial straits. Yet, despite the difficult circumstances, he did not want anything except a divorce on grounds of cruel and abusive treatment. This “meant he would have to testify about his wife’s behavior,” said Kathryn. “It was important to him to tell his story on the record.” The experience contributed to and shaped her desire to become a public interest lawyer.

Kate Aizpuru signed up for the clinic to translate her interests in gender issues into practical experience. “I wanted to spend some time learning the types of skills I wouldn’t be able to get in a classroom: working with clients, drafting legal documents, and appearing in court,” she said. She represented a client who had suffered domestic violence. “At first, I felt nervous—I had only appeared in court on motions, never for a full trial,” said Kate. But the more she thought about the skills she had acquired throughout her two semesters at the clinic, the more confident she felt, and took charge of the entire case. “It was an incredible experience,” she said. Kate delivered the opening statement at trial, answered questions about the case’s procedural history, objected to inadmissible evidence, and cross-examined her client’s husband. Several weeks later, she received a favorable judgment for her client.

Lana took on a divorce case involving domestic violence and custody. “By the end of the semester there was a  6 inch case file with 8 pounds of paper representing 10 weeks of investigation and research,” she said. By her second week at the clinic, Lana was in court seeking a custody order. She met with her client regularly, culled through medical records, tax filings, negotiated with opposing counsel, and subpoenaed records from various banks. She even examined deeds to real estate, written in French. “After a semester, I appreciate the days when we can get a “good” or “great” result for a client we can genuinely help,” she said.

Clinic Student Advocates for Survivor of Domestic Violence

Akhila Kolisetty, J.D. ’15

By Akhila Kolisetty ’15

As I sat in the courtroom with my client, waiting for the judge to call us for a pre-trial hearing, we saw my client’s abusive husband enter the room. Immediately, she became nervous and tense. In that moment – as she started tearing up and remembering the past abuse he had put her through – I saw the impact that a lawyer and advocate can make in the lives of survivors of domestic violence. I listened to my client’s needs, reassured her that she would be safe, and that we would achieve the best possible outcome in her divorce case.

A few minutes after this conversation, I had the chance to present the key issues in the case before a family court judge. In my opening statement, I detailed the history of abuse my client had gone through. I explained why she deserved custody of her children, why she should reside in the marital home, and receive child support. Through discovery, I had gathered evidence of a substantial sum of money that my client should have received during the marriage, so I also argued why she deserved a portion of those assets. The judge was sympathetic to our requests and gave us more time to collect critical evidence needed before a trial. I left feeling that the case would have a positive outcome, and my client left feeling a sense of hope for the future.

The experience of representing low-income survivors of domestic violence was an incredible one. I had come to law school with a deep interest in improving my ability to advocate for survivors of domestic abuse. Prior to law school, I had volunteered as an advocate providing peer support to immigrant survivors of violence but often felt that I lacked the capacity to fully advocate for them. The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me pair empathy with crucial skills in negotiation, oral advocacy and legal writing, to be a much stronger advocate for clients. I not only learned to represent clients in pre-trial hearings, but also conducted discovery, helped clients file for divorce, and advised them on their options. Throughout this process, I received helpful feedback that concretely improved my skills.

Many survivors of domestic violence are immigrants and low-income; they have difficulty navigating the court system and lack the finances to hire a lawyer. Furthermore, abusers often appear confident in court, while survivors of abuse feel intimidated when required to speak in court alongside their abusive partners. Lawyers in family law cases can help survivors of abuse advocate for themselves and ensure that they obtain the financial resources and the independence they need in order to move forward and thrive. Lawyers can also simply listen to difficult stories, acknowledge past abuse, and serve as a support system.

The Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic helped me develop vital skills needed to become such a lawyer and advocate, while also providing a needed service to a vulnerable population. I cannot think of a better experience to have as a law student.