2023 Founders Fellowship
The 2023 recipient was Emma Ratzman, a law student at Georgetown University Law Center.
Personal Essay on Summer Legal Internship in the Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit, Legal Aid of the District of Columbia.
I am thrilled that I was able to apply the legal analysis and substantive knowledge I gleaned from law school, as well as my own personal experiences, to contribute to Legal Aid’s mission. At Legal Aid DC, I did something every day that I had never done before, from gathering discovery, writing direct- and cross-examination questions, learning about trial strategy, writing motions, to conducting full-length family matter intakes. It was eye-opening and humbling. I met clients whose resilience and determination I admire greatly, and I am so thrilled to be able to help them navigate the legal system.
My primary job was to help Legal Aid attorneys prepare civil protective orders, advocate for fair and accurate child support and custody, and work to improve legal services for domestic violence survivors living in DC. I conducted legal research; drafted legal memoranda, briefs, pleadings, motions, and letters to support Legal Aid DC’s ongoing legal assistance; and assisted in the discovery process. I prepared hearing notes by writing opening and closing arguments, composing questions for direct- and cross-examination, and researching supporting authority. I also interacted directly with clients: assisting with intakes; observing client meetings, hearings, trials, and several court-based legal projects. While I have worked with survivors of domestic violence in the past, it was truly gratifying to be able to do so in a legal setting. One of the most exciting experiences was conducting intakes with applicants for Legal Aid DC’s family law services. I discovered that I truly enjoy interacting directly with these applicants, both in person at Legal Aid’s court-based projects and over the phone. Talking to the applicants and hearing their stories brought my work this summer into perspective and reaffirmed my passion for advocating for women and other historically marginalized groups.
One of the most impactful moments of my internship was when I witnessed a Legal Aid DC attorney reunite their client with her child in court. The client, Ms. Pena (name changed), had been working with Legal Aid DC for some time to obtain custody of her child and a protective order against her physically abusive ex-boyfriend. She felt unsafe in her neighborhood and feared he would harm her again, even though they had broken up. Unfortunately, Ms. Pena’s fears were realized when one day he attacked her while she was walking with their child. When she became unconscious during the attack, he took their child and refused to tell Ms. Pena where the child was for several days. With some hard work, Ms. Pena’s Legal Aid attorney successfully obtained a protection order, and the Superior Court judge ordered the ex-boyfriend to return the child in open court as a result of the emergency motion made by Ms. Pena’s Legal Aid DC attorney. Observing Ms. Pen’s Legal Aid attorney use DC domestic violence law to achieve justice for her client inspired me and reaffirmed my commitment to advocating for survivors.
I did not anticipate that I would work on several cases where Legal Aid DC helped male clients in child support cases. I worked especially closely with two applicants, helping them file pro se motions to modify their child support payments. One of the applicants was on Medicaid and was being charged unnecessarily through their employer for private health insurance for their child based on an old child support order. The cost of private health insurance was over half of this applicant’s monthly income and the monthly deductions left them without enough funds to support themself. With the support of my Legal Aid DC supervisor, I helped the applicant write a Motion to Modify the existing child support order to lift this burden and submitted it to the court. The applicant now has a path to financial security and being able to take care of their child in the long term. It felt amazing to be able to use the legal knowledge and experience I've learned from my internships and law school to support this applicant.
I plan to build my legal career around serving other women and girls who are survivors of violence. This internship helped me hone foundational skills that I will use as a new attorney advocating on behalf of survivors of gender-based violence and also taught me how to deploy holistic, trauma-informed, and culturally sensitive lawyering to be a zealous and empathetic advocate. I am so grateful for this opportunity to work to ensure fair and equal access to justice for DC residents most in need, including survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence. Gender- and sex-based violence haunts almost every society and is aided and abetted by legal systems, including here in the US. The experience I had this summer at Legal Aid DC makes me confident that using my law degree is my path to help right some of these wrongs.
Working at Legal Aid this summer helped me to continue to develop my personal philosophy on gender-based violence and reflect on how I can best contribute to advancing women’s rights. By putting my legal skills into action to help those affected by injustice, I became more confident in myself as an advocate for myself and others and reinforced my commitment to advocating to end domestic and gender-based violence. I would not have been able to do so without the support of the WBA Founders Fellowship. Without the WBA Founders Fellowship, it would have been difficult for me to support myself financially during this valuable, unpaid summer internship. I sincerely appreciate the WBA Foundation’s belief and investment in me. I look forward to using what I learned this past summer at Legal Aid DC with the support of the WBA Foundation to continue to advocate for survivors of gender-based violence.
My summer internship with the Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia (Legal Aid DC) has affirmed my conviction to pursue a career advocating for survivors of gender-based violence. I chose to attend law school at Georgetown because I view the law as an essential element in the fight to end gender-based violence. As such, I am thrilled to have had this opportunity to help Legal Aid DC provide direct legal services to family law clients and clients who are survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence and families in poverty. For many people, the legal system is opaque and inaccessible. Having a lawyer can make this experience bearable, especially for survivors of domestic violence. Legal Aid DC provides free civil legal services to DC residents in poverty, guiding them through the legal system when they otherwise might be unable to afford a lawyer.