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  • Glens Falls, NY

Lawyers team up to offer free advice to domestic violence victims

“I would say sometimes even their posture shows they have a little bit more confidence in what they know they need to do now.”

The clinic was formed by Vinson and O’Sullivan in 2010, after a search for ways to give back to the community, Vinson explained. Specifically, she and O’Sullivan wanted to do something to help women, she said.

When they joined the Women’s Bar Association’s board of directors, they learned of an earlier request put before the group by Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan. She had seen lots of domestic violence victims dealing with the criminal aspects of their cases, only to see other aspects of their lives impacted in ways that also required legal remedies.

“They (O’Sullivan and Vinson) picked up the flag and charged,” Hogan said.

Today, the duo — they work for rival Glens Falls law firms — are joined in their effort by about 30 volunteer lawyers specializing in everything from matrimonial law to bankruptcy and foreclosure law, Vinson said. As an attorney specializing in family and matrimonial law, Vinson said she’s seen clients struggle with the turmoil that can come with ending an abusive relationship.

“They don’t know a life outside of this,” she said. “A lot of these women have no financial capabilities. They’ve been kept from the finances, so they’re not really sure how to get a credit card. They don’t know how to pay the rent. So, when they come in, I feel like they’re hopeless. They don’t have the strength yet.”

That’s where the legal advice comes in.

Volunteer lawyers meet one-on-one with domestic violence victims one night each month at Catholic Charities, 35 Broad St., Glens Falls.

Matt Lavin, Catholic Charities’ crime victim advocate, said his agency’s services are geared toward helping victims cope with many impacts of violence, but there’s no substitute for legal advice when it comes to certain issues, including landlord/tenant disputes, divorce proceedings or child custody challenges.

“The people I work with, we can only say so much,” Lavin said. “There really isn’t any other service for clients to seek free legal advice.”

Lavin is one source of referrals to the clinic, though brochures explaining the clinic’s mission have been distributed to doctors’ offices, courts and libraries throughout the region. O’Sullivan said local police agencies are also aware of the clinic, though it’s unclear how many referrals have come from law enforcement.

Appointments are required for the clinics, which happen the third Tuesday of every month. The appointments allow attendees to be matched with the appropriate lawyer volunteer, based on the attendee’s legal concerns and a check to ensure there are no legal conflicts with a specific lawyer.

O’Sullivan explained attendees — or their significant others — may have been clients of an attorney in the past, and that attorney would, therefore, be prevented from meeting with said attendee.

What attendees get is free legal advice, not representation. Lawyers from the clinic don’t go to court with the victims, but they do provide plans of action that can help attendees through the ancillary impacts of domestic violence.

Vinson and O’Sullivan have been recognized for their work by the state Bar Association, which in 2012 presented them with the President’s Pro Bono Service Award for the Fourth Judicial District.

David Schraver, president of the state Bar Association, said clinics like the one in the greater Glens Falls region are greatly needed.

“Despite the efforts of people like Jessica and Jill, we are able to meet only a fraction of the need out there for legal services,” Schraver said. “People who volunteer to do this — and lawyers volunteer throughout the state of New York to provide millions of hours of pro bono service every year — really are helping to meet very serious needs. What they’re doing is really in the finest tradition of the legal profession, and I think we owe them great thanks.”

Vinson and O’Sullivan are quick to point out they haven’t been alone in making the clinic successful. In addition to Catholic Charities, they credited Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, county-run victim assistance programs, Warren Washington Child Advocacy Resource and Education Center and their own law firms for providing the support needed for the program.

Vinson, who graduated from Albany Law School in 2008, is an attorney with Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart & Rhodes P.C., and O’Sullivan, who graduated from Pace Law School in White Plains in 1993, is a senior associate at FitzGerald Morris Baker Firth P.C.

The effort also wouldn’t be possible, obviously, without the dozens of other area attorneys who volunteer their time for the clinics.

Other than a small cost for the brochures, the clinic is operated with no funding at all.

Asked what area residents can do to help, Vinson and O’Sullivan suggested referring victims of domestic violence with related legal issues to contact Catholic Charities at 793-6212.

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