If you are looking for a pro bono opportunity to develop your litigation skills and appear in court, 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, appeared in court seven times, including for two evidentiary hearings and a full-day trial.
Justin Hill* came to Legal Aid’s Southeast D.C. office at the Big Chair in early January 2016 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 conduct initial intake interviews with prospective Legal Aid clients two days a week at the Big Chair. Each year Kirkland attorneys also provide extended pro bono representation to several of the clients with whom they initially meet.
Mr. Hill explained that a prior court order granted him and his ex-wife joint custody, with Mr. Hill having primary physical custody of their children. Moreover, the order required that the children remain in the Washington, D.C. area. Yet, in violation of the order, the children’s mother had pulled the children out of school in October 2014 and took them with her to live 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 was 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 asking whether they had an attorney who was interested in handling the trial, and Nick volunteered right away. Nick worked tirelessly on Mr. Hill’s behalf to prepare and respond to 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, and prepare a pretrial statement.
“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 almost [after] the process I was going through.”
If you are interested in helping a parent like Mr. Hill with a child custody case, please contact Jodi Feldman at email@example.com. Not only do these cases provide ample litigation skills-building opportunities, you can also make a real difference for a family seeking stability and security.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.