The Return to the Family Court Help Desk

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By: Kari Ashworth ‘23

This summer, I served as the Senior Family Law Intern at the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc. (VLP) and the Family Court Help Desk (FCHD). I had previously worked in the family law unit at VLP last summer as well as through an externship this past spring, and I was happy to be back in-person this summer. In truth, the rising 3L class hasn’t had a normal law school experience. We spent our 1L year at the University at Buffalo School of Law on Zoom, with most of us learning our core bar classes in our bedrooms with pets by our side. I spent last summer almost entirely remote, sans for a couple trips into the Erie County Family Court to observe court. Even with the restrictions easing up, much of the socialization found in law school is scarce. So, to be able to come back to the VLP and experience the same internship through a different lens has been eye-opening in the best ways possible.

While the remote help desk is still open for clients residing outside of Erie County, VLP re-opened its in-person desk, located next to petition processing on the Fourth Floor of the Family Court building, on June 22. We now direct all Erie County residents to visit us in person, with those who qualify receiving same-day consultations. Those consultations are currently done  by our supervising attorney and Senior Staff Attorney Lori Roman Genovese and Staff Attorney Kaitlyn Lauber, but other attorneys will soon be volunteering their time again to help run the desk. Along with my fellow interns, UB undergraduate students Domenico D’Angelo and Peter Mazzella, I conducted client intakes both for the remote desk and the in-person desk, which are both provided only to low-income individuals. Helping low-income individuals is one of the reasons my fellow interns and I initially gravitated toward VLP. Peter told me his favorite part of this experience, outside of the welcoming environment VLP provided, is the ability to “serve for those who have been overshadowed”; likewise, Dom said, along with making connections in the Buffalo legal community, he enjoyed interacting with VLP’s clients and “working to find the best situation for a family.” For me, I have enjoyed being able to give back to a portion of the community that is often forgotten, especially in the legal community. I know all too well how difficult it can be to survive in a low-income bracket, and the ability to keep your family safe and healthy should never have to come with a price tag.

Outside of the typical responsibilities as a FCHD intern, I also provided support on my supervising attorneys’ cases, specifically through research assignments and drafting petitions. As the Senior Family Law Intern, I also had the added responsibility of supervising my fellow interns and answering general questions regarding the FCHD that arose. With this new role, I learned how important it is to ask “stupid” questions. I know as law students we strive to be the smartest person in the room, or at least put up the front that we are. However, I have found that “stupid” questions, which actually tend not to be stupid in the end, are the backbone of law. I could pretend I know every answer to every question thrown at me – by Dom and Peter, by Kaitlyn, by Lori – but the truth is that I am still learning new aspects of Family Law every day, despite having interned at the FCHD on and off since last Summer. I promise that people would prefer you ask questions, even if you are 95% sure you know the answer, because telling clients the wrong information can cause entirely new issues. There is the obvious aspect of malpractice, but the clients we serve at the FCHD are indigent, which means we may be one of the few chances, if not the only chance, they have of getting the help they need.

Additionally, learning how to navigate a client intake is important because we need to get the most accurate information possible in order for the attorneys to provide the best advice. We see a wide array of clients with vastly different issues, including custody, child support, paternity, and orders of protection. Sometimes people will give you more information than you need, and other times they may not feel comfortable telling you much of anything. In both situations, client control is important. Regardless, almost every client we see wants what is best for themselves and their families.

At the end of the day, the most memorable clients are the ones who have the best intentions for the people involved, which is the vast majority of those we speak to. One of Peter’s favorite client interactions this summer was with a married couple who wanted to petition for custody of their grandchild. To Peter, what made them so memorable was how much they cared for their grandchild. “It felt good to fight for someone who was trying to provide for their grandchild in the best way possible,” Peter said. As for Dom, his most memorable moment was with an order of protection client who was understandably quiet at first but quickly opened up to him with the issue. “To be trusted by someone meant a lot,” Dom said. While the FCHD is a great learning experience, it is also both a humbling and rewarding one. VLP provides the opportunity to learn the law by giving back to the community, which is really what we were all looking forward to this summer and succeeded in doing.      

I would like to thank Garry Graber and the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding and Fellowship Program for awarding me the 2022 Garry Graber ‘78 Fellowship. Without this funding, I would not have had the opportunity to return to VLP and experience the in-person version of this wonderful internship. I would also like to thank Lori Roman Genovese and Kaitlyn Lauber for their support and guidance this summer, as well as the rest of the wonderful staff at VLP. With each new experience here, I have solidified my interest in both public interest and family law, and I cannot wait to see where my law school journey takes me next.

Name: Kari Ashworth ‘23

Name of Fellowship: Garry Graber ‘78 Fellowship

Placement: Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc.

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “VLP provides the opportunity to learn the law by giving back to the community, which is really what we were all looking forward to this summer and succeeded in doing.”