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ABA Opinion-Editorials


By Dennis W. Archer and Laura Stein


By training, lawyers are supposed to be dispassionate advocates. But it is difficult to be removed when the safety and peace of a family or community are at stake. And the truth is that too often it is not until there is a crisis and emotion is running at its highest, such as when a family breaks apart, that our services are needed.

Some of the most heartbreaking cases are those involving wives and mothers victimized by their spouse or intimate partner. Many of us have some experience with this; wondering whether a neighbor or a colleague, perhaps a person we see everyday during the commute but whose name we do not know, is being abused at home. We hear the sounds through the walls of our apartments or see recurring bruises. We wonder what we can do, sometimes-though perhaps not often enough-we even call or get involved.

It is at these times that lawyers are fortunate because we know that when lives hang in the balance our work makes a difference. Perhaps a lawyer didn’t make that first call, but thereafter we gladly provide our services, because we know our skills and training can help improve a particular individual’s circumstances. Despite this, it is difficult to see how our contributions are making systematic improvements in peoples lives. Until now, that is.

A study published this April in Contemporary Economic Policy found that significantly less abuse is reported in counties that
provide legal assistance programs to help battered women. This is an extremely important finding. It means that communities finally have a proven strategy for protecting women from violence and that lawyers are playing a direct role in cutting down on domestic violence simply by contributing their time and energy.

By helping women obtain protective orders, child custody and child support, legal assistance programs give battered women an alternative to fear. They, and the lawyers who donate their time and services, give victims of domestic violence real, long-term alternatives to abuse, alternatives that can help them begin new lives free of threats, injury and fear. In other words, they give women hope.

So, this October, as we mark National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we in the legal profession pay tribute to those working on the front lines to provide support and assistance to domestic violence victims. We encourage others to join them by volunteering at a local shelter, providing pro bono legal assistance to abuse victims, or helping a local domestic violence organization develop materials detailing civil and criminal remedies available to victims. We encourage our colleagues in the law to help victims break the bonds of pain and intimidation by doing what they do best: practicing law.

Thanks in large part to legal services programs, incidents of domestic violence have declined in recent years. But hundreds of thousands of women remain at risk, and no social, economic, racial or other group is spared. Domestic violence is a problem that affects all of us. Too many women live in fear--afraid of their abusive partners, and afraid to leave them--and we can help. Let’s do our best to do so.

Dennis W. Archer is president of the American Bar Association. Laura Stein is chair of the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence.