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Domestic Violence Clinic Quietly Changing Lives

Knoxville attorney Donna Smith.

Knoxville attorney Donna Smith.

By Jay Fields

There’s a split second of recognition, a flash of light, a dam bursting, a note that rockets to self.

It says: “Ohmygosh, I’m in good hands here.”

For victims of domestic violence who make connections with the Fourth Circuit Court in Knoxville to file for protective orders and meet with an assigned student lawyer from UT, this appears to be the emotional bridgework that happens in the first meeting.

“One of the first things we learn,” says Maryam Kassaee, a former UT Domestic Clinic student lawyer, “is to listen. You just have to be there, listen, and stay clear.”

“I had a teenager filing for protection from the abuse of a boyfriend,” Maryam recalls. “I just kept listening. What came up was information that was really critical to her life, something I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Once she opened up, I could bring some other professionals into it.”

The Art of Lawyering

Knoxville attorney Donna Smith (UT College of Law, ’98), who supervises the program and teaches at the law school, says these third year students are really stepping off into the art of lawyering when they agree to take on domestic violence cases in the Fourth Circuit Court.

“They learn how to collect evidence, where to get a police report, how to get a photograph they need, where to find criminal records of an alleged abuser,” Donna says. “And they learn to listen and to look for signs of domestic violence, like issues of power and control. Very often, we’re talking about economic abuse in addition to physical abuse. There’s just nowhere to go when the abuser controls the financial resources. So when a victim shows up and sits down with one of our assigned lawyers, she’s often telling her story for the first time.

“Our students are provisionally licensed,” she says. “They’re going up against seasoned lawyers, so they know they have to work twice as hard. The client sees and feels how involved and how prepared their attorney is and their response has just been wonderful.”

Making the Commitment

For UT students (four per semester) who find themselves drawn to practicing domestic law while in school, getting deeply involved—listening, emotionally committing, presenting evidence, and arguing a case—can bring up its own set of trials.

“To some degree or other, all students are afraid when they step up to address the court for the first time,” Donna says. “I tell them to view fear as a doorway. You’ve got to walk through it or you’ll never get to the other side. The good news is I’ve never had a student who died.”

Judge Bill Swann.

Judge Bill Swann.

The Fourth Circuit Court’s long-time presiding judge, Bill Swann (UT College of Law, ’75), is a “huge proponent of the program,” Donna says.

“He never treated us as less than full-fledged lawyers,” Maryam recalls. “Everyone in the court is good to work with; all the clerks, courteous, friendly. They appreciate us.”

From the bench’s perspective, what these students are doing is “changing lives.”

“Their work is uniformly excellent,” says Judge Swann, “We’ve come to call them the ‘dream team’ because of the relationships they build with their clients, their thoroughness, and their caring attitude.”

The one advantage of students practicing law as it pertains to gaining and enforcing protective orders in domestic violence cases is the “compact nature of the law in this area,” according to Ben Barton, faculty member and director of the UT Legal Clinic. “You can be up and running in two weeks,” he says, “and get right in there on the front line.”

“I had a good feeling that I knew what I was doing,” Maryam remembers. “In a hearing on an ex parte order of protection, there are certain things you can do and that’s it—it’s a narrow band of the law.”

A Powerful Experience

Students who are enrolled in Family Law or Women and the Law can take the Domestic Violence Clinic as an additional class. The idea of a domestic violence clinic evolved informally in the 2000–2001 academic year when several students approached Professor Deseriee Kennedy about the prospect of assisting victims of domestic violence in securing orders of protection. Professor Kennedy, enthusiastic about the opportunity, recruited Donna Smith, a recent law school graduate with an established family law practice, to supervise the students. Those choosing to engage in the work are provisionally licensed and practice under the charter of the UT Legal Clinic.

“It’s a service to the community,” says Ben, “and one that is very, very important. The students who pitch in have to have equal measures of sympathy and empathy when they’re digging into these cases. It’s a powerful experience.”

In addition to the assigned lawyer, there are many other agencies and programs that converge on the scene of domestic disputes and violence, not the least of which are support groups for any of the parties involved.

“It’s critical to know you’re not alone as a victim of domestic violence,” says Donna, “and that holds regardless of a person’s age, regardless of whether it’s a husband-wife issue, a grandmother and a granddaughter, a woman, or a man. We’ve represented the whole spectrum.