At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a dynamic duo from Reed Smith for their pro bono work in a challenging custody matter. The team was led by associate Brandon Cunningham and Jeff Glatzer, a retired partner from Reed Smith who is currently in private practice.
As lawyers, we are trained to be zealous advocates ready to endure lengthy legal battles. However, by the time a client seeks representation, she has often already endured a difficult path paved with grief, abuse and conflict behind her — long before legal advocacy even begins. Jeff and Brandon are extraordinary examples of the persistence, dedication, respect and care that serves Sanctuary clients beyond the courtroom.
Mia: Tell us about the work you did for Sanctuary.
Brandon: Our case was a custody matter that was complicated by the dynamics of domestic violence. Following a brutal dispute shortly after the child was born, the mother was pressured to give up custody of her little boy to his father. But things were not going well for the child, and his father was failing to get him the help he needed. The father took actions to undermine our client’s relationship with the child and infringe on her visitation rights. Our objective was to regain custody rights for our client and improve her situation in the meantime.
Mia: I understand that you were engaged in representation for almost three years.
Brandon: Yes, we worked on the case for nearly three years. We spent an enormous amount of time documenting the issues the child was experiencing and the evidence of the father’s malfeasance. We drafted filings relating to the father’s failure to abide by the visitation orders in place, negotiated increased visitation rights for our client, and prepared for trial, including a forensic examination.
All of the work we did was in concert and collaboration with Sanctuary’s Legal Director at the Bronx and Manhattan Family Justice Centers, Dara Sheinfeld, without whose invaluable experience and counsel we could not have achieved what we did.
Mia: How did you become involved with this case?
Brandon: The case came to us via Sanctuary for Families in May 2013. Jeff had previously expressed an interest in collaborating on a pro bono matter with Sanctuary, and I worked with Sanctuary in law school through the Courtroom Advocates Program, advocating for Orders of Protection for battered women. Following an initial intake meeting with the client, we were impressed with the gravity of the situation and eager to help; there was clearly a woman, and even more so a child, in real need of our help.
Mia: What is the status of the case now?
Brandon: We and Sanctuary are no longer her counsel, so we do not know the status of the case. This case really showed the toll that litigation, especially trial preparation, can take on already traumatized clients. This was the second time that the client had, for all purposes, to make the difficult choice to stop fighting for her son in court – both times because of the intense pressures of litigation.
Mia: Despite that you are no longer engaged in representation, several positive outcomes were achieved. Can you share some examples of those?
Brandon: While we sadly had to withdraw from representing this client because she no longer wanted to pursue her case vigorously, we understand and respect her decision. One outcome is that we significantly improved her visitation rights, more than doubling the time she is now able to share with her son. Perhaps most importantly, we were also able to advocate and obtain medical and therapeutic help for her son, which he urgently needed.
Mia: It is often said that Sanctuary is unique because of its holistic approach to client service. Did you find that you and Sanctuary were able to provide support outside of the courtroom?
Brandon: A great deal of our work took place outside of the courtroom and after working hours. There were instances of receiving urgent calls on Saturday morning from the police precinct, or late at night to resolve ongoing visitation issues. We also spent a great deal of time with the client working through the challenges inherent in her custody setup and in her relationship with the father and the child. Finally, our legal work and strategy were strongly influenced by what the client was and was not able to work with and compromise on; a holistic approach was necessary to reconcile those aspects as much as possible.
Mia: It is incredibly difficult to advocate for custody rights after having (seemingly) voluntarily relinquished custody, which is one of the many ways that domestic violence manifests against the abused parent. What were some of the other hurdles or challenges you faced?
Brandon: The relationship between our client and the child’s father was deeply unpleasant; the father would regularly send abusive, belittling screeds full of personal attacks to our client and also to us. For a while, the father was pro se, which made things even worse. There were numerous instances in which reasonable compromises were met with impasse because the parties could not get past their personal feelings.
Mia: How has Reed Smith supported your work with Sanctuary?
Brandon: Reed Smith takes pro bono seriously and provided all the resources we could ever have needed. The attorney hours we committed to this case over the course of three years were immense, in addition to the support staff assistance with filings, assembling of materials, etc.
In addition, Jeff was able to join in the case as a result of the firm’s participation in the New York State Attorney Emeritus program, which enables retired partners to continue to participate in pro bono matters through the firm. This program is fantastic for pro bono generally, given the highly experienced lawyers with time to contribute that the program brings into the fold.
Mia: What is your practice area? Is it different from the subject-matter of the case?
Brandon: Jeff’s primary experience has been as a bankruptcy lawyer and commercial litigator, and I am a white collar crime and government investigations lawyer. So yes—worlds away from family court and custody disputes.
Mia: Do you have any lessons or takeaways you’d like to share? Has working on this case helped you grow as a lawyer?
Brandon: This was definitely a very challenging case, with a lot of difficult interpersonal dynamics to manage and barriers to overcome. In the end, we felt we had done as much as we possibly could for the client, even though that didn’t involve taking her case to trial. We learned a great deal about dealing with clients who are deeply emotionally involved in the subject matter of the case, about dealing with hostile and legally unsophisticated adversaries, and about the challenges faced by abused women trying to assert their rights. Working with and learning from a lawyer of Dara Sheinfeld’s caliber was particularly valuable for a younger attorney such as myself and a senior lawyer without experience in custody matters.
Mia: Is there anything else would you like to share?
We would like to thank Dara, and Sanctuary for Families generally, for the opportunity to work on such a rewarding case. And we encourage all attorneys to reach out to Sanctuary for Families and ask how they can contribute, even if they have no experience in gender violence or family law.
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Brandon and Jeff’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here. If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Mia is a Pro Bono Council Co-Chair for Sanctuary and a senior associate in the intellectual property and information technology (IP/IT) practice group of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in New York.