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Mom Finds Advocates in Pro Bono Center Volunteers

October 25, 2017

For several months, Ms. E* struggled to get counsel in her child custody battle, trying to grasp court procedures and rules on her own, while her children’s father had retained a highly experienced lawyer. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic recognized that Ms. E was at a huge disadvantage and, with only one month to go before a three-day trial, worked to place her case with lawyers. In stepped Katie Towt and Ahuva Battams, two attorneys who do not shy away from challenges. In April 2017, they got to work immediately.

Ahuva Battams“For me, it is the duty of every attorney to help represent people in need,” says Battams. “I am never too busy to help. I go home to a safe environment with a family who loves me, and I want to give others that safe environment, too.”

As full-time federal government attorneys, neither Towt nor Battams had litigated a custody matter before. Battams’ practice focuses on administrative and regulatory issues. She had worked on a few uncontested divorces during her law school’s clinical program, but her pro bono efforts since graduation focused on disability and housing issues heard by the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. Battams volunteered for the case to gain experience handling a trial.

While litigation and public service figure prominently in Towt’s work as a federal government trial attorney, she also did not have experience with family law. The closest she came was working on women’s and children’s issues during her time stationed in Mozambique as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. Despite this, Towt joined the team after being contacted by Laura Klein, chair of the Federal Government Pro Bono Program.

“I know Laura,” Towt recalls thinking. “She runs a great program, and I knew we would have the tools to succeed.”

(As required of all federal government attorneys engaging in pro bono legal services, Towt and Battams undertook Ms. E’s case in their individual capacities without involvement by their respective agencies.)

Together they set to work developing Ms. E’s case. As the opposing party sought sole custody of the couple's young children, Towt and Battams immediately focused on gathering evidence that showed Ms. E’s strengths as a mother. Battams remembers meeting Ms. E for the first time, and getting the impression that she “clearly loved her children and had not done anything that would justify her not being a huge presence in their lives.”

The team noticed a deposition, interviewed potential witnesses, and served subpoenas. While Towt and Battams initially found the procedural aspects of practice within the D.C. Family Court’s Domestic Relations Branch unfamiliar, they leveraged the support provided by the Advocacy & Justice Clinic and regularly spoke with both Pro Bono Center staff and their expert mentor, Marcia Kuntz of Kuder, Smollar, Friedman & Mihalik, P.C.

Katie Towt“I felt like we had a whole team of subject-matter experts,” says Towt. “It was great not only for the moral support, but also because we felt like we could pick up the phone and have an expert on the line.”  

Battams agrees: “We required a lot of assistance, and everyone went above and beyond to help us.” 

While the trial was originally supposed to take place over three days, case developments and scheduling challenges resulted in the case being heard over several weeks. Despite multiple twists and turns, the judge issued a final order giving Ms. E joint custody of her children.

“The trial was a lot of hard work,” admits Battams, but the effort was rewarding. “My employment with the government does not involve representing individuals. To have that human interaction was very satisfying.”

Towt echoes her statements. “Our client was incredibly grateful. She regained some faith in the system, as well as a positive outlook for the future of her family.”

Towt and Battams both plan to stay involved in pro bono work, and they offer some advice to other attorneys considering using their skills to do pro bono work. “Don’t be afraid to dig into something new,” Battams says. “There is a support system that will help you represent your client zealously regardless of the substantive area.”

On the tremendous benefits of pro bono work for the volunteer attorney, Towt says “You get to develop skills you would not otherwise get to develop. Most of my cases with the federal government settle, so for me to be able to come back to my office and explain I examined witnesses and gave an opening statement in court, that is great.”  

“I have been so privileged and supported in getting to this stage in my career. I have taken advantage of mentoring by other attorneys. I have an obligation to pass those benefits forward. Attorneys can get caught in the academic, but our laws ultimately impact people. That reality informs my work,” she adds.

A version of this story was originally published on the Washington Council for Lawyers website as part of the organization's D.C. Pro Bono Week Celebration.

*Name withheld to protect client's identity.