Legal aid attorneys ride emotional roller coaster

by MADISON MURPHY

The story of a mother under domestic violence is quite harrowing. What about the attorney or paralegal that assists her? Along with their client, employees of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake look trauma right in the face. Being skilled to separate their work from their personal lives is a necessity.

“There are no happy cases. We don’t do adoptions, it is just degrees of misery. Some [employees] just can’t take it … they can’t deal with the misery all of the time,” said Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

Most LAS employees deal with 120 cases at one time, each client thrown in a situation they never expected to be in. The results of their cases are rewarding, but the process can be an emotional roller coaster. Because their clients are often disconsolate, the LAS employees can become miserable, too.

“I try really hard to make sure there is a good separation, that I’m able to leave work and enjoy my personal time. But there is definitely overlap and I find myself thinking about it at home. I try not to let it affect me, or my job would be even more overwhelming,” said Jen Ungvichian, a paralegal for the LAS.

Ralphs said many of the clients are “basket cases.” They seek legal aid after dealing with one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives, so who can blame them? Ungvichian said that dealing with their state of trauma takes a massive amount of listening skills to make sure the client understands what his or her options are.

“We are helping people navigate the legal system, who have no idea what the rules are and the procedures. Really knowing how to understand and communicate with the client is the whole function of our organization,” Ungvichian said.

The most common client LAS encounters is a middle-aged mother suffering domestic violence. She desperately needs to file for a protective order or civil stalking injunction, divorce, or custody for her children, but cannot afford it. By approaching LAS, she will receive financial and legal assistance to regain her rights.

A protective order limits the husband from going to specific locations, seeing certain people or obtaining specific objects such as phones, computers or money. Ninety percent of the cases are domestic violence and about 90 percent of protective orders are not violated, according to LAS statistics.

“Protective orders are helpful, but they don’t stop a bullet,” Ralphs said. To prevent clients from encountering further abuse or possible murder, they are trained to keep doors locked and to always have a cell phone nearby.

LAS is further helpful when it comes to people who are representing themselves (pro se). Ralphs said they are often inarticulate and have trouble filling out their paperwork. “We like to provide these services from start to finish to make sure we are giving them all that the government can provide them,” he said.

For the employees, domestic violence cases are not about winning or losing, but simply discussing the issue and coming up with a solution. In order to give proper aid, employees are trained in law, finances and family issues. They also must be culturally sensitive. They make it a priority to avoid trial. Avoiding trial with a judge means dodging high costs and saving time. Ralphs is proud to say that he only goes to about one trial every 12 months, and he has been working for LAS for more than 20 years.

Clearly, working for the LAS can be very stressful, but employees find themselves in love with their job. They love helping their clients escape from physical and emotional slums, and changing their lives for the better.

“Sometimes it is the first time in my client’s life that someone has stuck up for them…. There is something really nice with doing something absolutely necessary for somebody and to not worry about money,” Ralphs said.