When most of us think of hiring a lawyer, we assume it will cost a lot of money. As a result, some people who need legal counsel may never seek it because they think there will be no way they can afford it. But for financially strapped people in Lafayette who need legal assistance, they can get pro bono (a.k.a free) legal representation through the Lafayette Bar Foundation. The Foundation provides a variety of legal services to peole in Acadiana who are indigent, low income and disadvantaged.
One of these services is the protective order panel, which helps abused women secure protective orders against their abusers. The panel is done in partnership with Faith House of Acadiana (faithhouseacadiana.com). A protective order is a civil proceeding with potential criminal consequences for abusers. Protective orders can accomplish a variety of things. They can legally require an abuser to cut off all contact. Even a text message can result in strict legal consequences for them. They can also mandate counseling for the abusers.
Three young Lafayette attorneys — Phillip Smith, Sarah Simmons and Katelyn Bayhi — are some of the legal minds providing that service for abuse victims in Lafayette.
Phillip Smith, a 30-year-old attorney with Neuner Pate in Lafayette, said domestic violence victims usually start the legal process with either a call to a domestic abuse hotline or a visit to a shelter. That alone takes courage for the victim.
“It’s the first step in a journey for them,” Smith said.
Pro bono work is important for domestic violence victims because abusers often control the household’s finances. As a result, women fleeing an abusive relationship are unlikely to be able to afford an attorney. If they cannot afford an attorney, then they have to face the judge and their abuser by themselves. Abusers sometimes will berate their victims in court and bring up painful, irrelevant personal details in front of everyone in attendance.
“A lot of [abused women] are terrified by the legal process,” Smith said.
One of Smith’s most memorable clients was in this type of financial situation. She was a mother of two young children under the age of 10, and she was in a relationship with a person addicted to methamphetamines who became physically abusive. Smith said there is often a trigger for an abuser’s descent into physical abuse, and drug addiction is a common trigger. Thankfully, Smith was able to get the protective order for his client.
Smith described his pro bono work as a highly rewarding part of his practice and something Neuner Pate actively encourages in its attorneys.
“As lawyers, we are called to provide service to our community and the best way to do that is to provide legal services to people who cannot afford them,” Smith said.
When Katelyn Bayhi, an attorney with Neuner Pate, worked her first pro bono protective order case, she wanted to be kind and compassionate to her client in their initial consultation. But she was so nice on that day that the client made an apologetic confession after Bayhi negotiated a consent judgment (where a settlement is reached without a hearing) with the defendant. The client doubted they would be able to negotiate a settlement or win in court.
“[The client] said she thought I sounded too nice on the phone,” Bayhi said.
But compassion serves its purpose even when dealing with the party accused of abuse. As badly as that party may have behaved, they are still human beings, too. Bayhi said she is sometimes able to negotiate settlements without a hearing, and she attributes this in part to her compassion. She said both sides in a domestic case usually want to feel like someone is genuinely listening to them.
Bayhi said the men accused of domestic violence often do not have legal representation. They are likely to feel overwhelmed at the thought of representing themselves in court. In her first case, Bayhi approached the defendant. He was defensive at first, but she calmly told him what her client wanted, and then attentively listened while he said what he wanted. They were then able to work out a consent judgment.
While some defendants cannot be reasoned with, Bayhi said the consent judgments are often helpful to her clients because it is extremely stressful for a woman to go into court and face her abuser. She will then have to rehash her abuse in front of the court. It’s not something most victims want to do if it can be avoided.
Bayhi said the reward comes from being able to assist people going through a frightening time. The fact that there are often children involved makes the work even more urgent.
“It’s the idea of helping anyone who is not able to help themselves,” Bayhi said. “You’re not just helping the mother. You’re helping the children as well.”
Aside from the rewards of helping people in need, the 26-year-old Bayhi said pro bono work is also a great way for young attorneys to get valuable courtroom experience.
When 27-year-old Neuner Pate attorney Sarah Simmons works domestic violence/protective order pro bono cases, she uses empathy to form a connection with her clients. She often thinks to herself “there but for the grace of God go I” when assessing the situations facing the scared young women she represents.
Simmons said many law school students will be laser-focused on their careers at first. But she said once she got her degree, she realized she had a unique set of skills that not many people have and that could be used to help those in need.
“[As a lawyer] I can get nervous when I step in a courtroom, but I know what the law is and I know how to speak to a judge,” Simmons said.
Simmons’ clients, on the other hand, are scared and forced to face the man who has been abusing them while reliving their trauma.
Simmons’ most memorable case, like Bayhi’s, was her first one. It was a young mother about Simmons’ age with two kids in a relationship with a much older man who controlled all of the household’s finances. He told the client she needed to quit her job so she could stay home with the kids. He manipulated her emotionally and isolated her from her friends. This escalated into acts of violence.
Simmons said the gradual progression of abusive behavior her client experienced is not uncommon. It often starts with smaller things like emotional manipulation and financial control because it is easier to abuse someone who has no money and is isolated from people who care about them.
But Simmons’ client found the courage to pursue a protective order when she noticed the situation was affecting her children’s behavior. Simmons succeeded in getting a protective order for her client, who was ecstatic.
“She was so excited to have her freedom back, to get a job, to have independence,” Simmons said.