Massachusetts Bar Association member Andrew P. Cornell has
been practicing law in Massachusetts for 20 years, concentrating on
all aspects of family law. He is a volunteer attorney for Community
Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSCC) in Cambridge, where he
has represented several victims of domestic violence on a pro bono
basis. He was awarded the MBA's Access to Justice Pro Bono Publico
Award in 2003 and serves as a member of the MBA's Access to Justice
Section Council. The MBA's Mike Vigneux recently spoke with Cornell
about his pro bono experiences.
Q: Why is it important to do pro bono work as an attorney?
A: It's a recognition that lawyers as a licensed group of individuals
have been part of creating a system that has made getting to court
incredibly expensive. By no means are lawyers the only people
responsible for it. Middle-class people, poor people, even a lot of
upper-middle class people often can't afford the rates lawyers
charge. So, along with the privilege of being able to charge that
much money for basically things that are just in my brain, comes
the responsibility of leveling the playing field to make it so that
people who can't afford attorneys can still be represented.
Q: What's the most rewarding aspect of pro bono work?
A: You have to care enough to do a really good job, but not enough
that you take the problems home with you. I know that there are
women who've been able to get a financial settlement that they
normally wouldn't have been able to get without an attorney's help.
Some have received protection with restraining orders and parenting
plans that keep their children safe that wouldn't have had them
without an attorney's help. I know that people I've represented
have felt empowered, and I've been able to be a part of their whole
process of getting out of an abusive situation so that they can
stand on their own feet. I've represented a lot of women whose
husbands are very violent. I represented a woman whose husband
tried to kill her by throwing a VCR into the hot tub while she was
sitting in it. It's impactful work. You really do feel like your
presence there is helping somebody achieve a goal that they
probably wouldn't be able to without a lawyer.
Q: What do you find most challenging about pro bono cases?
A: My theory has always been that if you're going to work for free
you might as well do interesting work. So I've always asked for
interesting cases. The problem with interesting cases is that they
tend to be the most complex cases. But if you're going to work for
free, it might as well be an experience. The domestic violence
cases are the hardest, and I think because they're the hardest they
can be the most fulfilling. One reason they're hard is that you're
dealing with scary people [the abusers].
Q: What makes working with domestic violence cases particularly
A: One of the problems you have is that most victims don't get to
court until after the black eye is gone, the blood is dried off and
they've been cleaned up. One of the things that happens when you do
domestic violence work and you get very intimately connected with
your clients is you really do learn about the violence from their
perspective - what the fear was really like of not knowing when
somebody was going to go off on you. Not knowing when you're going
to get your nose broken or when someone is going to slam your head
against a wall. You get a sense of what it's like to be in a
situation where the adrenaline is going through you the whole time.
Court is this very ritualized state where the person gets up there
and they say, almost in a monotone, because you're not supposed to
be too theatrical, "He did this to me. He did this. … He did this."
I think there's often a disconnect with a lot of judges, court
officials and other lawyers about domestic violence because they
haven't lived it every day, even through their client.