By Jodi Feldman
If you are looking for a pro bono opportunity to help a family achieve stability and hone your litigation skills, consider representing a parent in a child custody case. Just ask Kirkland & Ellis associate Nickolas Barber who, over the course of a year representing the father of two young sons referred from the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, appeared in court seven times, including for two evidentiary hearings and a full-day trial.
Justin Hill* first came to Legal Aid’s Southeast DC office at the Big Chair asking for help in reuniting with his sons, then ages six and nine. That day Mr. Hill met with volunteer attorney Nick Barber. Through a unique partnership with Legal Aid, Nick and his Kirkland & Ellis colleagues have been conducting initial intake interviews with prospective Legal Aid clients at the Big Chair for several years. Nick has been a regular intake volunteer since joining the firm as a first-year associate in 2014. Kirkland attorneys also provide extended pro bono representation to several of the clients with whom they initially meet during Legal Aid’s walk-in intake hours.
Mr. Hill explained to Nick that a prior court order granted him and his ex-wife, the children’s mother, joint custody, with Mr. Hill having primary physical custody of the children. Moreover, the order required that the children remain in the Washington, DC area. Yet, in violation of the order, the children’s mother had pulled the children out of school in October 2014 and took them to live with her in a state in the Midwest, without any notice to Mr. Hill, with whom the children were living at the time. By the time he came to Legal Aid for help, Mr. Hill had not seen his children for over a year.
Mr. Hill filed a pro se Motion for Contempt within days of the mother’s departure but was unable to get his children back on his own due to procedural setbacks and the fact that he did not know where they were living. In February 2016, Mr. Hill, with limited representation by Legal Aid, secured an order providing him temporary sole physical and legal custody of the children. The Court also entered a legal finding of parental kidnapping against the mother and ordered her to return the children to Mr. Hill in the District. The case then headed to trial on the issue of permanent custody, specifically whether the children should live primarily in Washington with Mr. Hill or in the Midwest with their mother.
Legal Aid reached out to Kirkland to see whether they could staff the case going forward, and Nick volunteered right away. Nick worked tirelessly on Mr. Hill’s behalf to prepare discovery, develop the facts, file and argue motions, identify evidence, prepare witnesses for trial, negotiate with opposing counsel, communicate with a government attorney on the issue of child support, prepare a pretrial statement, and more.
“I got to do everything,” recalled Nick. “I handled all of the motions practice, status hearings, and took my first telephonic deposition. With so much court time, I became very comfortable in front of the judge. I went from fumbling my words to speaking clearly and with conviction. It was a great professional opportunity.”
And the difference was clear to Mr. Hill as soon as Nick got involved. “The way that the court system was taking me, I feel like I was just a number being pushed through … like my case wasn’t being heard on the individual basis that it needed to be done,” Mr. Hill recollected. “And then when I got a lawyer and they were helping me, it felt like things got done.”
At the full-day trial, Nick presented an opening argument, elicited evidence from Mr. Hill and four additional witnesses, cross-examined the mother and her additional witness, introduced exhibits into evidence, and made a compelling closing argument.
At the conclusion of the trial, the judge entered a permanent custody order awarding Mr. Hill sole physical and legal custody of the children with monthly visitation for the mother. The Court’s lengthy, well-reasoned order was a direct result of Nick’s skillful presentation of the case, including his compelling argument regarding the legal effect of the Court’s finding of parental kidnapping.
And Mr. Hill’s reaction to the Court’s decision? “Basically joy, euphoria, I can’t explain it. It was just … I couldn’t believe it … .”
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.
Jodi Feldman is Managing Attorney for Legal Operations 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.