Putting the law to work in a life-threatening situation

July 1, 2011

Gillian Chadwick’s task was supposed to be fairly routine: Help the woman who had shown up at the nonprofit organization where she was interning as a legal assistant get a temporary protective order.

The woman — wife of an abusive man, mother of an 11-month-old baby — had arrived at Ayuda that day in 2007 with a suitcase, looking for a way out. Chadwick’s job was to provide support and guide the woman through the legal process. So while the mother testified about the abuse she had endured, Chadwick held her baby.

Then the woman, 4 months pregnant, passed out.

She was taken to a hospital and treated for dehydration. That night, the two searched for a safe place for the woman and her baby to stay. And Chadwick found a new calling.

Chadwick, 29, is completing two years as a fellow at the D.C. office of Equal Justice Works, which connects current and recent law school students with public-service initiatives. Now in its 25th year, the organization provides fellows with the opportunity to help underserved populations deal with issues related to domestic violence, homelessness, community economic development, civil rights, juvenile justice and health care.

“We look for people who have the right experiences,” said David Stern, Equal Justice’s executive director. “You’re just doing staff attorney work? We’re not interested in that. . . . Are you doing something that’s innovative and capable of replication? Yeah, we’re interested in that.”

Depending on the number of sponsors that sign on, between 40 and 45 people are selected each year for salaried two-year fellowships. They design a project that matches the specific needs in a community.

“They have to be passionate about a cause,” Stern said. “They get the bug, they want to do it again. It’s really very powerful to help someone that is in a life-threatening situation and be able to use your legal skills to get them some protection.”

The woman Chadwick helped in 2007 eventually went back to her husband. She couldn’t afford to leave.

A legacy to take action

Through Equal Justice, Chadwick has been able to pursue her interest in employment justice, migrant issues and working with women who have been victims of violence. She created a project with the D.C.-based Women Empowered Against Violence to empower domestic-violence victims to move beyond dependency.

Since September 2009, Chadwick has represented women in 34 legal cases, including a woman from South America who after moving to the D.C. area found that her new husband was someone mysterious, distant and with strange habits. He hid recording devices throughout their home and threatened her with deportation should she try to leave him. He never physically injured her, said the woman, who is not being named because she is a victim of domestic violence.

But the woman spoke no English at the time and was left alone at home for months and without money. “Everybody could say he’s a good person, but I can’t,” she said.

When her husband got drunk one December night, just six months after she had arrived, she put a jacket on over her pajamas and ran. After she got an order of protection, she met Chadwick.

“I was terrified,” the woman said. “And I could trust Gillian since the very beginning.”

Chadwick, a graduate of American University, said she had considered several fields to work in, including social work, but thought that law would best allow her to use her strength to serve others. That’s where Equal Justice came in.

“It was a dream of mine to be a fellow,” said Chadwick, whose family has a history of involvement in the labor, civil-rights and antiwar movements. “I knew it would give me a tremendous amount of independence and responsibility right away. The fellows I knew were some of the smartest, most passionate and most visionary lawyers I knew.”

The job can be emotionally draining. Sitting in court an entire day. Meeting with clients to answer questions about divorce, custody battles, tax issues, immigration status and protection orders. It all can lead to 12-hour days and very late nights.

So Chadwick has sought out a number of avenues to help deal with the stress. She said she has taken martial arts classes to “punch out my frustrations.” Spending time with friends and family and talking to people who are exposed to similar situations are also among her techniques to avoid burnout.

“I try not to bring home my terrible stories to my husband, because I don’t want to poison that relationship,” Chadwick said.

Staying the course

Equal Justice will welcome 45 new fellows, selected from among 365 applicants, in the fall.

“Of all of our fellows, more than a thousand fellows that we have funded since the beginning, 80 percent of them continued on doing public-interest work right after the fellowship, most of them at the same organization where they got their fellowship,” Stern said.

Yvonne M. Williams, a 1997 fellow, worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to help combat discrimination of people moving from welfare to work and against low-wage and low-skilled workers.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” said Williams, who in February was nominated by President Obama to be a D.C. Superior Court associate justice. “It gave me the foundation to become a good, strong lawyer in terms of getting practical skills, respect for clients, dedication and commitment to what you do.”

Chadwick, nearing the end of her fellowship, is unsure of her future. Private practice is not really under consideration; she sees herself doing work similar to what she has done through Equal Justice and sharing the knowledge she gained.

“This kind of gender-based violence is happening whether we want to think about it or not,” she said. “Me going into some other work, I don’t think I would forget that this was happening,” she added. “I care about this issue. At least now I know I’m working on it, I’m helping. I’m trying to help.”

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