Making a Hard Choice–And Sticking to It
In high school, I thought being a lawyer was synonymous with being a liar. A profession characterized by rhetoric rather than truth, trial law seemed like a necessary evil to me. It appeared evil because trial lawyers make their money doing everything they can to convince judges and juries that their client should win—even if the lawyers know that the client should not. Trial lawyers are necessary because they serve as investigators, gathering and presenting information which a judge or jury use to render a verdict. If the system works properly, even the lawyer promoting the unjust outcome is actually facilitating justice. If, however, imbalances of power make court cases more about rhetoric than reality, wealth can trump fairness.
Working as a court advocate, my job is to do what I can to win a Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO) for my client. Our free services aim to support victims, but distinguishing victim from perpetrator is not always simple. Many relationships are toxic; many perpetrators are manipulative, and plenty of offenders seek protection orders to pre-empt the victim’s legal efforts. By checking our and the court’s records, we can usually identify and redirect the known abusers. As a non-profit funded specifically to support victims, we at DCRC have to make difficult judgements about who is right and wrong. The gray area lies in mutually toxic relationships and custody disputes.
The people in these gray areas I am writing about are not the ones who lie about what happened to them—such dishonesty is relatively rare and of a different nature. The cases that trip me up and stick with me are the ones where our clients honestly describe actions that are wrong but not abusive. Many of our clients are victims in need of protection, but some describe reasonable arguments or non-ideal but non-threatening disputes. These clients often file for a protective order because they want to modify a custody arrangement in their favor. If someone’s partner’s poor behavior can be classified as abusive, the alleged victim is more likely to win custody. Even when children are not involved, our clients still sometimes have questionable motives or framings. Several men have told me they really need this protection order to stop the harassment so they “don’t end up in jail for beating her, because [they] can’t take any more of this.” Our clients are not always the best people.
Without legal licenses, we cannot tell people exactly what to say, nor can we speak on their behalf, but we do give them detailed information about how the process works and how to best describe their situation to a judge. We know what usually convinces judges to grant protection orders. By highlighting those aspects of a client’s story to our client, we help increase the chance of getting a DVPO. While our powers are limited, we still need to be thoughtful about who we help.
After vetting and accepting a client, my job as a court advocate becomes more similar to that of a trial lawyer. I do everything I am legally permitted to do to help my client win—whether they deserve to or not. I have felt guilty doing it. I know that in a few rare but challenging instances, I support the wrong side. I maintain my resolve by focusing on the many clients who have experienced serious domestic violence and fear deeply for their well-being. It’s better to make a few mistakes in the pursuit of justice than to not pursue it at all.
Drawn to philosophy, I struggle to see any decision as “simple.” Having to pick people to fight for and stick with them is teaching me to act in times of uncertainty. I do not need to know how to perfect a situation to know how to improve it. To pursue a career in public service or non-profit services, I will have to become more comfortable accepting that all causes have problematic aspects. Every cause has its radicals and all clients have dirty laundry. My internship is teaching me that pursuing purpose requires picking one and sticking with it—at least for a little while.
David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.