" It was the first time that I was introduced to the issue of human trafficking... it rocked me to my core, and from then on, I felt like I was part of the problem or part of the solution."
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF. WHERE ARE YOU FROM AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Devi. I am 26 years old and originally from North Carolina. I currently live in New York City and work as an attorney for Sanctuary for Families, the largest nonprofit in New York State dedicated exclusively to serving domestic violence and human trafficking survivors.
WHAT DOES YOUR TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
My days vary in one of two ways: I either spend my workday in court or in the office preparing for court. A workday in the office starts with checking emails and voicemails. Given the nature of the agency that I work for, there are emergencies, so I check those immediately when I come into the office. I conduct client intakes where I meet with the client for the first time, listen to her story, and determine how we can help. I also hold follow up client meetings where I get any new information and walk them through the next steps to prepare for court. Statistically, the majority of domestic abuse victims are female, so my clients are mostly women.
If I am not meeting with clients, I start on my to-do list which includes contacting many other organizations in effort to avoid court. In New York City, there are a lot of agencies that are interconnected. We frequently work with the Human Resources Administration (HRA). There are so many people involved in taking care of our clients, and I spend a lot of time making sure that what needs to happen on every front is really happening.
If I am headed to court that day, I arrive around 9:30 am and check in with clerk. There, I meet with my client and touch base with her. I will check for any developments since our last meeting. If this is my client’s first court appearance, we will go over the process so it is clear what she can expect. That involves covering the procedures in court and calming any nerves. Then we look towards opposing counsel. The majority of the case takes place outside of the courtroom, where we are talking to opposing counsel about the facts of the case, making it clear what my client’s needs are, hearing the needs of their client, and meeting in the middle. Sometimes, however, we cannot come to an agreement, and we will take it to trial. The whole process involves a lot of negotiation and at the end of the day, generally concludes with writing up a settlement with them or adjourning to prepare for trial.
Things move very slowly in court. More frequently, the case involves multiple motions and court dates. It can take a lot of back and forth between our clients and agencies, and often times we need more information from all parties involved in order to return to opposing counsel and negotiate a settlement. Sometimes the process can drag out for a long time. If opposing counsel is there on multiple cases, it can be a waiting game. I also want to allow my client time to think over her options so that she is not making life altering decisions on the spot. All of this can mean a protracted court process.
TELL US MORE ABOUT SANCTUARY FOR FAMILIES. HOW DO CLIENTS FIND YOU AND HOW DOES THE AGENCY WORK TO MEET THEIR NEEDS?
The Mayor’s Office of NYC has an program to combat domestic violence, and in each borough, there is a Family Justice Center. Anyone can walk in and someone will conduct an intake and refer them to agencies within the city, like Sanctuary for Families, that can provide assistance to survivors. We also receive a lot of referrals from other organizations that may be at capacity or do not have the means to meet the client’s needs. For instance, a counseling organization that provides clinical services may have a client that has legal needs. If that person meets our requirements (a human trafficking or domestic violence victim), we can provide assistance. If someone needs help, they can call 311, the main source of government information and non-emergency services, and explain their situation. We have an intake line that receives referrals from a 311 operator.
One of the reasons that I love Sanctuary for Families is that we have a holistic approach when it comes to caring for our clients. We provide legal services for survivors to obtain divorce, child support, child custody, and immigration status. We also provide legal assistance in housing and public benefits. Just as importantly, the agency provides counseling for the client and the client’s children, shelter services, and economic empowerment; we train our clients to have a set of skills that are marketable. In this line of work, there is a lot of trauma that the client is working through, and these services are just as important as legal aid. We also do a lot of outreach and legislative advocacy, and I love that about Sanctuary for Families.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
A big portion of this profession is spent behind a computer - researching and writing. Generally, everything that is done in court requires a motion. A motion is a way to ask the court to do something. I am frequently writing affidavits and motions, and researching the law on certain situations. Each client is in a very unique position, and there is typically one unique case that works to my client’s advantage but about 10 cases that work to their disadvantage. It is my job to make sure that I most closely identify my client’s set of facts with the case that is to our advantage. I have to know that case backwards and forwards so that I can explain to the judge why my client’s case should be decided in the same way. Generally, that is all done on paper.
WHEN DID YOU KNOW THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO? / WHY DID YOU WANT TO PURSUE THIS CAREER?
Since I was little, everyone told me that I should be a lawyer. I guess that was because I have strong opinions on certain issues and am very vocal. It wasn’t until I entered college that I really considered it as a career choice.
I thought that in order to go to law school you had to be a political science major, so that was the major I declared as a freshman in college. My sophomore year, however, that changed. I was in the bookstore on campus getting the required textbooks for my courses, when I saw a book sitting in a section under another major. The cover had a young girl on the cover with the word 'Sold' written on top of her. I picked it up and read the back cover because I was so curious. Although it wasn’t part of my curriculum, I bought the book and I read it within a day. The book was written by Patricia McCormick, and it was the first time I was that introduced to the issue of human trafficking. The issue rocked me to my core, and from then on I felt like I was either part of the problem or part of the solution.
My desire to reach the underserved and my commitment to social justice made the idea of becoming a lawyer something that I was really meant to do and not just something other people thought that I should do. I immediately checked out books from the library on gender violence and got involved in my community, switched my major to Women and Gender Studies, and set my focus on law school. Since then, I have continually learned more about gender violence, human trafficking, and domestic abuse, and my passion for this effort has grown.
HOW MANY YEARS OF SCHOOLING/WHAT PROGRAM DID YOU GO TO?
I attended North Carolina State University and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Women and Gender Studies. I earned my law degree from New York Law School. While I was in law school, the job market for attorneys was dismal, to put it lightly. It became very apparent to me that in order to stand out and have a job after graduating, I needed to make connections in the specific field that I wanted to work in. I spent every semester interning with organizations whose mission statements were compatible with my interests and who offered a service that I wanted to provide. There was a fellowship for new graduates at Sanctuary for Families, and I jumped on the chance to apply. It was a great opportunity to return to the place where I enjoyed interning.
WHAT IS THE WORK/FAMILY/LIFE BALANCE LIKE?
The nonprofit sector generally has a more relaxed way of life compared to corporate law. My supervisor and our management are very understanding of outside obligations and self-care in general. Vicarious trauma, trauma that can occur while listening to client stories, is very real, and my employers want us to be mindful of it. I get to enjoy most of my weekends and I get to have date nights with my fiance. I know a lot of corporate attorneys that aren't truly "off" on the weekends.
That being said, when I step back and realize the enormity of the job - clients are coming to us at their most vulnerable state and looking to us for help - I feel an enormous pressure from within to stay the extra few hours and to get the job done as quickly as possible. I also have the tendency to stretch myself so as not to turn away potential clients in their moment of need.
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO PURSUE YOUR CAREER?
Given the cost of law school and low employment rates for law school graduates, you need to make sure that it is absolutely something you want to do. Make sure you feel passionate about becoming a lawyer, and your desire isn't something that you could fulfill in another way. I think there are a number of lawyers who end up practicing for a few years and transition to social work or teaching. It makes sense, as all of these occupations are ways to serve the community and to make a meaningful impact on people's lives. But before applying and going through law school, ensure that the legal/justice system is the best vehicle in which to help people. There are a lot of challenges within the justice system. Sometimes I have to explain to my clients that while the law is meant to be fair, it can also be arbitrary and heartless. I think a lot of new attorneys may hit a wall and realize the law does not always work out in favor of their client, despite what it is made to do. That is a hard pill to swallow.
As far as nonprofit work or working on domestic violence cases specifically, I think you need to be aware that you will be fighting forces that are outside of your control. You will advocate all day long for your client, but you will always run into enormous structural barriers, such as poverty, racism, classism, and sexism. These can be daunting to oppose, and they are such a big part of our clients’ lives. Our clients are generally low-income, and are often underserved because of their race, gender, immigration status, or sexual orientation. Once you size up your ‘opponent’ (poverty, sexism, etc.), it takes a strong person to lace up everyday. That is probably why the burnout rate in the nonprofit sector is so high. You are fighting forces that are way bigger than you. You have to be comfortable knowing that you are making a dent, no matter how small it is. You are making a profound impact on an individual basis. These big walls will not come crashing down just because of your work, but you WILL be a part of the solution.
WHAT ARE YOUR LONG TERM GOALS WITH YOUR CAREER?
This one has always been tricky! I want to be a master of my craft. I want to feel comfortable in my skin every time that I am before a judge, and I want to know how far I can push the envelope for my clients. I am still learning, and I anticipate this will take years to achieve. I have wonderful supervisors who are helping me get there.
Perhaps when I get to that point, I will transition into teaching. I spent a lot of time in law school working with New York City high school students and teaching them about social justice and their constitutional rights. I found that to be so fulfilling. It would be a great way to continue making a dent for the cause.