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Pro Bono Week 2020 Profiles: Kristin Whidby – Navigating a Path to Safety with DC Volunteer Lawyers Project

By Karen T. Grisez

Kristin Whidby is not a typical senior litigation associate. She handles complex IP, real estate, and securities litigation matters for a wide range of clients, but she does much more. She’s also the mother of four young children, and in recent months has added the demands of managing remote learning to her other parental responsibilities. On top of all that, Kristin has continued to be an active volunteer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, providing direct representation to clients and serving on its Junior Board.

Kristin’s involvement with DCVLP began in 2016, when she took over a case on behalf of a domestic violence survivor just a month before trial, following the unexpected withdrawal of the client’s prior counsel. The case stemmed from an incident of physical abuse directed against the client by her then-boyfriend and the father of her child. The client had obtained a protective order before Kristin’s involvement, but both the client and her former partner subsequently sought full legal and physical custody of their child. Kristin was forced to change strategy at least twice in the short month preceding trial, to accommodate both the radically shifting litigation positions of the opposing parent as well as the judge’s stated desire to award joint custody to both parties. In less than a month, Kristin amassed a tremendous amount of documentary evidence and presented three witnesses at trial, resulting in an award of sole legal and primary physical custody to her client.  Her outstanding work on this matter led DCVLP to honor her with a Law Firm Volunteer Attorney of the Year Award for 2016.

After her experience with that first case, Kristin’s involvement with DCVLP only deepened. She began encouraging other Fried Frank attorneys to take on DCVLP matters, and she continues to support and supervise junior associates who take on civil protection order, divorce, or child custody cases with DCVLP. She has arranged for the Firm to host various trainings for DCVLP, welcomed attendees from inside and outside Fried Frank, and served as a presenter about her own experience on several occasions.  In addition to that, she has taken on several other cases for direct representation.  By the end of 2018, she had devoted over 450 hours to her pro bono work for DCVLP, which is particularly impressive given the fact that she was on maternity leave with her youngest child during part of 2018. Because of her compelling body of work representing domestic violence survivors in protective order, divorce, and custody cases, Kristin was recognized by the Florida Bar with its Out-of-State Pro Bono Service Award in January 2019.

Kristin’s most recent DCVLP case began in 2019 and has continued remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.  It involves representation of a mother in a custody case that began when the child, then just 3 years old, began making allegations of sexual abuse against her biological father. Due to the lack of physical evidence, governmental authorities declined to pursue the allegations. Nonetheless, the child was adamant about what had happened to her, and Kristin had to identify ways to elicit reliable evidence relating to the child’s experiences. In addition to calling as witnesses several unrelated people to whom the child had made these allegations, Kristin worked with the child’s therapist and a certified trauma specialist to have the child formally evaluated for signs of trauma. After the evaluation was complete, the evaluator told Kristin that this was one of the clearest cases of abuse that she had ever seen. This knowledge reinforced Kristin’s steadfast commitment to demonstrating what was in the best interests of the child, and Kristin was eventually able to successfully overcome the assigned judge’s expressed inclination to award at least supervised visitation to the father. In the summer of 2019, she obtained a preliminary order of no visitation throughout the pendency of the case. Following that order, Kristin arranged for the child to begin ongoing therapy with another certified trauma specialist, and, coupled with the court’s preliminary order, the child has made significant advancements in her recovery.  Trial preparation and ongoing negotiations with the father are continuing, with a focus on attempting to reach agreement for the reunification of the child and her father under the guidance and supervision of a licensed reunification expert.

Notwithstanding her work on this legally and emotionally challenging matter, Kristin has also made time to participate in supervising two junior associate teams in civil protection order matters.

Kristin Whidby is a shining example of a leader who pursues balance through deliberate commitment.  She not only balances her family time with her work responsibilities but also demonstrates to her colleagues how a successful professional life always incorporates a meaningful and satisfying pro bono component.

Karen Grisez is Pro Bono Counsel at the Washington, DC office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP and a member of the Board of Directors of the Washington Council of Lawyers.