October 2019 Peek at Pro Bono - Domestic Violence Restraining Orders

by Allie O’Hara

The pro bono infrastructure created and supported by Latham & Watkins’ Pro Bono Committee empowers associates to devote time and attention to pro bono clients’ needs. It is within this well-established framework that a small team of Latham attorneys (partner and Human Options Board Member, Andrew Gray, and associates Rachel Bosley, Natasha Pardawala, and I) took on an appeal of a denied Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO) request in 2017.

Despite her ex-partner’s documented history of repeated violence against our client, whom we shall call “Karen” to preserve confidentiality, Karen’s journey within the legal system almost ended when her DVRO petition was denied for the fourth time in late 2017. When I first met with her to discuss the details of her case, Karen was completely at a loss and felt defeated by the legal system. Despite her initial skepticism, we gained her trust during that meeting and, with her courage to proceed, mapped out a case strategy. I will never forget the countless phone calls easing her nerves in advance of oral argument or the moment she broke out in tears as I read to her the court’s decision to reverse and remand with directions to issue the DVRO. Karen’s tears of joy and relief represented a pivotal moment in her life and that of her daughter, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity to help achieve this result.

For me, this moment reinforced the importance of empowering traditionally underserved individuals right here in Orange County and maintaining a robust pro bono practice throughout my legal career. It was just one year earlier that I responded to Leigh Ferrin’s monthly “New Pro Bono Opportunities” email expressing interest in working on this appeal. When we began the intake process—less than two weeks into my first year at Latham—I had no idea that our client faced such a steep uphill battle (we later learned that several seasoned appellate litigators had turned the case down for its low likelihood of success). But I knew that this appeal had the potential to make a significant difference in our client’s life and set precedent for other survivors of domestic violence.

The task at hand was only possible with the support and guidance of key leaders in the legal community, including Latham partners Andrew Gray and Michele Johnson, who serve on the Human Options and Public Law Center (PLC) Boards of Directors. Along the way, our partnership with PLC and the Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP) proved vital for the success of the appeal, as well as the client’s concurrent custody case. Appellate litigators from the Orange County and Los Angeles areas participated in moot arguments and provided valuable feedback that shaped the oral argument I eventually delivered before the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Division, District III. Although the court’s opinion was unpublished, the impact of this case resonates beyond the appellate order. Our client regained a sense of confidence and control that she lost in her four prior attempts to seek recourse through the legal system.

Pro bono cases like this one offer junior associates unparalleled opportunities to develop essential skills. But the professional advancement and accompanying boost of confidence pale in comparison to the value we can deliver to our clients through trauma-informed care and legal counsel. Since obtaining this favorable appellate verdict, my pro bono practice has primarily focused on impact and discrete litigation matters related to the housing crisis in California. I learned from the experiences of each of these courageous clients that responding to an email asking for pro bono assistance can change the lives of everyone involved. I look forward to working with and empowering underserved communities and individuals—in particular, survivors of violence and individuals experiencing homelessness—to utilize the legal system to their advantage and create lasting policy to that effect.

Allie O’Hara is a Litigation & Trial Associate in the Orange County office of Latham & Watkins LLP. Ms. O’Hara is a member of Latham’s Pro Bono Committee, the Public Law Center Advocates, and the Family Violence Appellate Project’s New Leadership Council. She can be reached at Allie.O’Hara@lw.com. Peek at Pro Bono is an occasional column that offers insight into meaningful pro bono work being done by an Orange County lawyer.