News Archive

Law Firms Band Together to Help Survivors of Domestic Abuse

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Sonya Passi '13 and
Alexandrea Scott '13

By Susan Gluss

A who’s who of Bay Area law firms—Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, Wilmer Hale, Jones Day, and nearly two dozen more—are banding together to raise money for victims of domestic violence. Rock and soul groups from seven firms and Google will compete in the Battle of the Bands on June 13 in San Francisco. The proceeds will fund appeals for survivors involved in custody disputes.

The event is the brainchild of the Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP), a legal advocacy group formed just one year ago by Chancellor’s Awards winners Sonya Passi ’13 and Alex Scott ’13. Its core mission is to mobilize appellate representation in domestic violence cases and to ensure the safety of survivors and their children.

Passi modeled the competition on a similar event held annually by Kirkland & Ellis in D.C. to raise money for the homeless.

“What’s genius about the concept is that it plays on the natural competitiveness of lawyers, especially in such a tight-knit legal community,” Passi said. “Bands are taking the voting very seriously, and several of the bands are rehearsing weekly.”

But the winner isn’t necessarily the band with the best tunes or rockin’ guitar player; it’s the one who can bring in the biggest bucks.

“It costs one dollar to vote for a band and votes can be cast online before the event and on the night itself. The band that raises the most money will be crowned champion,” Scott said.

The competition has created quite a buzz. Donations are streaming into the Battle of the Bands website. So far, 800 tickets have been sold at $20 each, and the number keeps climbing. The pot to help survivors of domestic violence has reached about $90,000 dollars and counting.

To amass that much money in so short a time is a signature feat for FVAP. It’s a group that went from zero to 60 in a nanosecond.

Meeting a need

Passi and Scott launched the nonprofit one year ago after a mere six months of planning. Since then, they’ve had about 135 requests for services. They initially expected to handle from two—six appeals per year. They now have nine active cases. Last fall, they had one legal intern. This summer, they’ve had 38 applications for internships.

The board of directors tells the same story: Passi approached Bay Area attorneys, academics, and business leaders to serve on its board last year. Now, one year later, people are approaching FVAP for a seat.

Stacey Wexler ’96, director of litigation at Google, was one of the first to join the board.

“When I first met Sonya and Alex, I was moved by their discussion of the need for appellate representation of domestic violence survivors and inspired by their passion for solving this problem. It was a no-brainer to join the FVAP board when they invited me.”

FVAP logo
The social ill that is the drumbeat behind FVAP’s mission is the repeated abuse of women and children in domestic violence cases. The stories are rampant. One of the more horrific reports in the news this year was that of a convicted batterer in Sacramento who won rights to see his two sons after serving jail time. Despite the mother’s plea for full custody, a judge ordered that the boys stay with her ex-husband.

Just four months later, the man allegedly attacked and murdered his nine-year old son—with a hatchet.

In California, family law statutes are designed to protect domestic violence victims and their children in cases of abuse. The state code contains a carefully worded provision designed to prevent children from ending up in the care of violent guardians. But family court judges have little guidance in interpreting the statutes. Incredibly, abusers are granted custody in 54 percent of domestic violence cases, according to reports cited by FVAP. It’s a cycle Passi and Scott are determined to stop.

“Abusers are the worst kind of bully. Everybody—adults and children—should be safe in their own home,” Passi said. “Family violence is a root cause of so many other problems, from drug and alcohol abuse to depression and suicide. If we can end that destructive cycle it will have far-reaching ramifications.”

“It’s our goal to assist survivors who are in danger while setting statewide precedent that benefits thousands of parents and children across California,” Scott said. “If we can give our clients the power to escape abuse, we'll be doing more than setting legal precedent. We'll be preventing domestic violence in the next generation and beyond.”

John Levin, the chair of Folger Levin and founder of the Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law, credits FVAP for being a “smart project that will effectively use the law to address a real issue.”

Levin drew a comparison between the Levin Center and FVAP and liked what he saw. “I founded the Levin Center at Stanford with a view toward encouraging public mindedness and social activity by law students that would give them grounding for being better citizens and leaders throughout their careers. FVAP seems like an exemplary model of that kind of social enterprise.”

The newly formed nonprofit is running at full speed. Its executive director Erin Smith ‘04 and legal director Nancy Lemon ’80 have conducted training sessions for trial attorneys in the Bay Area, LA, and San Diego. The group also has a wait list of statewide attorneys who want to take cases pro bono.

What’s their secret?

“We set these ridiculous challenges for ourselves and then meet them,” Passi said. “Then we celebrate together. As soon as we celebrate, we set another one.”

The bands:

Jones Day and the Objections (Jones Day) "Classic Memphis soul"
Strongly Worded Letter (Kirkland & Ellis) "Everyone will be able to sing along"
The MoFonics (Morrison Foerster) “Covers of modern and classic rock tunes with parody lyrics"
Oh My My (O’Melveny & Myers) "Awesome covers and aspiring rock legends"
Hazel (Google Legal) "Rocks like Crüe, Boogies with Stu, and break dances like Winnie the Pooh."
The Whiskey Talking (Quinn Emanuel)
Kind to Animals (Bingham McCutchen)