By Doug Groene, Esq., Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Sometimes a client impacts an attorney's life just as profoundly as the attorney impacts her client's life. In Dina DeGiorgio's case, her pro bono client helped her transform a sense of disillusionment into a renewed spirit of service.
Dina has always tried to help people achieve a better life, especially the poor and those in need of a voice. After college, the Bronx native decided to go to Fordham Law School in hopes of someday serving the public and "doing something bigger."
In law school, she fell in love twice. First, she met and fell in love with the man who was to become her future husband. Second, she fell in love with using her newly acquired legal knowledge to promote justice. She gained entrance into an exclusive clinic program that allowed her to represent victims of domestic violence for one semester and criminal defendants for one semester. The clinic taught Dina essential legal skills like client interviewing, negotiating, and arguing in court. It also taught her that she could make a critical difference in the lives of her clients.
"All of the clients were indigent and they were all very grateful. I liked representing a person, helping an individual," said Dina. "Being a lawyer is powerful--you can impact peoples' lives profoundly, for bad or for good."
Dina's passion for helping individual clients led her to leave the firm where she worked after law school and create her own family law practice. "The firm had more of an upscale clientele, and the work was not as fulfilling. I went out on my own because I wanted greater flexibility. I built my own practice from nothing," explained Dina. While raising two children, now ages 11 and 13, Dina managed to create a bustling law practice.
Starting her own firm has given Dina the freedom to practice law in her own style, which she hopes can be more civil and less adversarial. A skilled mediator, Dina has made mediation an increasing part of her matrimonial practice, and she also practices collaborative law.
As a family law attorney, Dina has represented a fair number of victims of domestic violence. But one case had a lasting impact. The client, Sarah, was the victim of terrible abuse at the hands of her husband and came to Dina for a divorce. Over the next few weeks, Dina met with Sarah several times to flesh out the details of the abuse and prepare the paperwork for a divorce based on cruel and inhuman treatment. Sarah brought pictures of bruises all over her body and told compelling accounts of the terrible beatings her husband had inflicted upon her.
Sarah's abuser engaged in the classic abuse "cycle." For months he would vow that he had changed, and would control his violence. However, these "honeymoon" periods would invariably end, and he would resume battering Sarah. It was during one of these "honeymoon" periods that Sarah came to Dina for a divorce--it had been 8 months since the last incident of abuse. But the last incident was the one that finally drove Sarah to get help. For the first time, the abuser not only hurt Sarah, but also hit her son. She needed to get away to protect her two small children.
Dina fought to get an order of protection for Sarah that would force the abuser to leave the house and stay away. But the judge was skeptical.
"The judge questioned her motives. 'You stayed with him all this time and NOW you want to get him out of the house?" recalled Dina. "I replied to the judge, 'so basically you are saying that unless the victim comes forward right away she waives her right to get help and she should actually be punished for finally getting the courage to come forward?" The argument became heated, but the judge relented and begrudgingly signed the order.
Everything seemed to be going well until a few days later when Dina received a phone call from Sarah. "She told me she decided to reconcile with the abuser and wanted me to drop everything," remembers Dina.
"I was adamantly against it. I refused to drop anything unless she went to court and allocuted on the record. I was hoping she would change her mind or that if I could only speak to her face-to-face I could convince her to reconsider or to get counseling before deciding."
But Sarah did not reconsider--she went to court and told the judge she wanted to withdraw everything. Perhaps most heart-wrenching was the explanation she gave to Dina afterwards. "I am not like those other women you represent," Sarah told Dina. "I was really to blame for bringing those beatings on myself."
For a while afterwards, Dina felt disillusioned. "It made me sad and angry," she recalled. "I went through a phase in which I said to myself, 'I should have saved her.' For a while I couldn't [emotionally] handle that kind of case. The people I felt the most sorry for were the children.
But when the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence's Legal Resource Network (www.legalresourcenetwork.org) contacted Dina in need of volunteers, she felt the opportunity was too important to pass up. "I learned that I can only do so much--it isn't my life. But I feel it is really important to empower women. When you help a woman escape domestic violence you are saving the children too."
Despite her negative experience with Sarah, Dina agreed to represent one of the Coalition's clients, pro bono. The client, a victim of domestic violence, had a "stay-away" order of protection and custody of the children when she came to the Coalition, but needed help with a divorce. The abuser did not want to contest the divorce, which made the process less complicated.
"This was going to be an uncontested divorce," said Dina. "I was impressed by her. She was articulate and very thankful I was helping her. She shared all of the details of the abuse with me when we contemplated filing under cruel and inhuman treatment. She was a mother of 3, who went through so much, but she turned her life around."
The client had tried unsuccessfully to get a divorce on her own. But with Dina's help, the client was able to escape her abuser permanently.
"She wanted to turn her life around so her children would not have to follow the same path. I felt really good about being able to help her. When she came to sign the final paperwork, she was so grateful. She had tears in her eyes. It felt terrific- it was very powerful."
Dina has already taken other cases from the Coalition's Legal Resource Network and plans to not only continue her pro bono work with the Coalition, but to serve as a mentor to other volunteers.
"I get so much out of pro bono," Dina said of her experience with the Legal Resource Network. "If you can save a family from violence you give the woman a chance to succeed and you break the cycle so you also give the children a chance to succeed. I particularly care about the children because they are innocent and didn't ask to grow up in violence."