GLBT Domestic Violence Attorney Program aids survivors with pro-bono attorneys’ help

Issue July/August 2008 By Kelsey Sadoff

 Rule 6.1 of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct says, "A lawyer should provide annually at least 25 hours of pro bono publico legal services for the benefit of persons of limited means."


To guide attorneys in this goal, Lawyers Journal will regularly profile an organization from the Pro Bono Opportunities Guide, a comprehensive listing of statewide agencies that are in need of pro bono assistance from attorneys, law students or paralegals.

In the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, few domestic violence survivors seek legal assistance. Many are reluctant to come forward because they are worried about how they will be treated by both police and the court system.

The Boston-based Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Domestic Violence Attorney Program has stepped into the void. Since 2005, the GLBT DV Attorney Program had provided direct legal services to GLBT domestic violence survivors through representation and referrals.

The GLBT DV Attorney Program was created by the GLBT Domestic Violence Coalition and is funded by a federal grant with an advisory board made up of the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, the Network/La Red and Fenway Community Health. The program finds pro bono attorneys willing to represent clients in restraining order hearings; it also helps domestic violence survivors create safety plans, find shelters and obtain emotional support services.

"I have worked with the GLBT DV Attorney Program since 2006 and have seen firsthand the urgent need for expanded civil legal assistance for GLBT domestic survivors," said Rebecca Cazabon, pro bono staff attorney at Foley Hoag LLP, a pro bono partner of the GLBT Attorney Program.

"This is the only program nationally devoted to exclusively working with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender survivors of domestic violence," said Wayne Thomas Jr., program attorney for the GLBT DV Attorney Program. Thomas believes he is one of just four attorneys nationwide, and the only one in Massachusetts, who practices exclusively in this area of law.

Generally, pro bono attorneys working with the GLBT DV Attorney Program handle restraining order cases, which can require anywhere from four to 10 hours of volunteer time to resolve, if repeat court dates are unnecessary.

However, Thomas notes that the program also needs attorneys who are available to work on more substantial cases outside of restraining orders. As the program’s only full-time employee, Thomas finds it challenging to commit his limited resources to larger-scale cases. Additional pro bono attorney help would allow the program to provide more clients direct legal services in cases involving family law, real estate and immigration.

"We can’t help everyone who needs help," said Thomas. "There is a major need not being met in the greater Boston area."

The GLBT DV Attorney Program receives client referrals from domestic violence organizations, health care providers and occasionally, from district attorneys offices and police departments. The program works primarily with individuals who are at 200 percent of the federal poverty line after taxes (income of about $20,000) and are unable to afford legal representation. While the program assists anyone who is a teenager or older, the GLBT DV Attorney Program primarily aids survivors who are 20 to 45 years old, with an even split between male and female clients.

Currently, the program works with seven to eight new clients per month and there is an immense need for pro bono attorneys who can specialize and help clients on family law issues, real estate and immigration law. In the legal community, the established programs typically dealing with clients facing family law and immigration issues are overwhelmed. With so few resources among legal service providers, many organizations find it difficult to provide assistance for additional clients.

"The stakes are so high," remarked Marc LaCasse, a partner at the McCormack Firm LLC in Boston and a pro bono volunteer for the GLBT DV Attorney program. "You are right on the battle line with restraining orders. This is a drop-everything-and-run type of pro bono activity."

The GLBT DV Attorney Program restraining order cases also offer young attorneys the opportunity to get court exposure and experience. Advocates say judges can struggle in how to deal with same-sex relationships in legal proceedings, and attorneys are badly needed to help clients navigate the system.

"Every attorney should do pro bono work," said LaCasse. "The personal satisfaction is unmeasurable."