By Sylvia Soltis
Nadira Clarke, Baker Botts partner, and Washington, D.C. Section Chair of the firm’s Environmental Safety & Incident Response Group, has leaned into leadership roles, mentorship opportunities, pro bono work, and more since joining Legal Aid’s Board of Trustees in 2018. Indeed, when it came to encouraging pro bono engagement with Legal Aid, Nadira resolved to model the behavior she wanted to see in her colleagues. Having previously handled sex-based discrimination litigation and immigration matters, Nadira is no stranger to pro bono work. Yet, she was willing to dive into a new area of law and has been accepting child custody case referrals from Legal Aid in recent years.
In her first case referred from Legal Aid, Nadira and her colleague Tiffany Cheung represented a mother and domestic violence survivor seeking to modify a custody order involving her young child. While Nadira is a respected and seasoned litigator, this matter would be unique. It would be Nadira’s first child custody case and one in which a pandemic would turn everything on its side. Pivoting from working in person to virtually with her client certainly presented challenges, including adjusting to the remote operations of D.C. Superior Court. Nadira describes how the experience of prepping witnesses virtually and being separated from her client in different conference rooms at their firm (out of safety precautions early in the pandemic) forced her and her co-counsel to be creative about their case approach and strategy.
A virtual custody trial was ultimately held where Nadira and Tiffany presented evidence of the extensive domestic violence perpetrated against their client. The Court found that the conflict between the parties and the physical assaults and threats rebutted the presumption that joint custody was in the best interest of the child and modified the permanent custody order to grant their client sole legal and sole physical custody of her child, with visitation for the father. Later, when there were violations of the terms of the modified custody order, Nadira and Tiffany jumped right back in and filed an emergency motion to further modify the order.
Meanwhile, Nadira and Tiffany had already agreed to represent another client in a contentious child custody case. Her commitment to her clients becomes only more notable when one realizes that Nadira took on these cases while co-chairing Legal Aid’s 2021 Servant of Justice Awards Dinner, a large-scale annual DC event to celebrate the dedication and achievement in ensuring that all persons have equal and meaningful access to justice. That role too would require ingenuity as the event – with 800+ attendees in years past – had to be re-designed to take place virtually during the pandemic.
Nadira is candid in pointing out that balancing pro bono work with her regular practice and family obligations can be hard, and that it may not be for everyone. However, for those open to it, she encourages them to lean in. “Having a direct impact on an individual’s life makes it all worth it,” said Nadira. “You feel needed on a more personal level.” For law firm attorneys who are on the fence or unsure whether pro bono work can fit into their busy schedules, she offers the following thoughts: “You are more than your job at the firm and it’s important to nurture every side of who you are.” She also invites attorneys, in particular the young women she mentors at her firm, to reflect on what they define as “success” in their life and career.
In addition to the impact that she has on her pro bono clients’ lives, Nadira emphasizes that with each pro bono engagement comes growth and learning opportunities. “You don’t do this work to become successful in your profession, you do it because you care. But you’ll be surprised at how much you learn and the opportunities that can come from it.” Describing the growth she witnessed in Tiffany, who participated in a corporate trial after having taken the lead on a pro bono custody trial, Nadira beams with pride.
“Tiffany is gaining litigation skills and responsibilities that she wouldn’t otherwise get this early on in her career,” commented Nadira. “And it shows in the confidence and skills she brings when working with her corporate clients.”
Nadira underscores that these learning and growth opportunities apply to junior and more senior attorneys alike. In each role she has assumed when volunteering her time with Legal Aid, she revels in how much she herself has learned from her fellow board members, mentees, Legal Aid staff, and co-counsel.
“It’s exciting to be engaging with different people who are equally committed to Legal Aid and access to justice,” shared Nadira. “I’m learning more about Legal Aid and the practice of law. It is not easy, but it’s so worth it!”
We couldn’t agree more! Nadira is making an indelible impact on Legal Aid as an organization, the professional development of the colleagues she supervises and mentors, and, most importantly, the lives of the clients she represents.
Sylvia Soltis is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Pro Bono Program at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, the oldest and largest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia. Legal Aid was created in 1932 with the goal of making justice real – in individual and systemic ways – for persons living in poverty in the District of Columbia. For more information about Legal Aid, please visit our website, www.LegalAidDC.org and our blog, www.MakingJusticeReal.org.