/ Blog Post
By Naomi Young, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel
Katy was determined to take back control of her life.
After years of abuse from her husband, she knew that it was time to leave. She did everything she could to stay safe—keeping her location confidential, blocking him on social media, asking her family not to tell him where she was—and began to create an independent existence. It wasn’t quick or easy, but Katy was slowly getting back on her feet. The progress ground to a halt, however, when she was denied affordable housing. The reason? She had failed to report her husband’s income.
That’s when she discovered that her husband had been filing joint married tax returns without her consent or knowledge for several years. The housing management called Katy a “liar” when she told them she’d been separated from her abusive husband for years and knew nothing about the tax returns. Katy worried her husband might fraudulently use her identity for other purposes, and she was right: soon, he began applying for loans in her name.
Katy came to Her Justice, my Fellowship host organization, for legal advice because her married status was impeding her from moving forward with her life. The organization was founded 26 years ago to meet the underserved need for divorce representation for women living in poverty. Two years ago, my supervisor Anna Ognibene and I designed an Equal Justice Works Fellowship to develop the Marital Debt Project to address the intersection of economic insecurities arising from divorce and debt.
In my day-to-day work, I help train pro bono attorneys and represent my clients in a variety of legal cases, such as consumer debt, divorce, orders of protection, and support. Women experience poverty at rates much higher than men, and are more likely to head single-parent households—it’s a perfect storm, and holistic representation is crucial.
Although I represent women regardless of whether they identify as survivors of abuse, (75% of Her Justice clients), the connection between economic abuse and debt is evident in most of my cases. In many ways, creditors also abuse our clients through harassing debt collection techniques, coercive settlements, and by obtaining default judgments without ever notifying defendants of the lawsuit.
Her Justice operates under a “pro bono first” leverage model, which means that my project was created not only to represent my clients, but to expand our reach by recruiting and training pro bono attorneys from some of New York’s most prominent law firms. Lucky for me, I didn’t need to look far to recruit pro bono attorneys. I barely said “please” and my Fellowship sponsor, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, jumped into action. Under our mentorship, Kramer Levin pro bono teams provide representation in numerous complex divorces from the Marital Debt Project. Additionally, the firm provides in-house interpretation for Mandarin, Spanish, and Urdu speakers.
With the support of Kramer Levin, I had the opportunity to test a brand new legal clinic model. Her Justice trained nine Kramer Levin lawyers and law students to provide litigated divorce legal services to four Marital Debt Project clients. Due to the clinic’s success, I will be collaborating on a second clinic with the firm’s incredible pro bono coordinator this month.
Every day, my clients remind me that, as a lawyer, I’m positioned to assert their rights and tell their stories to hostile audiences. Yes, they have the odds stacked against them, but they also have the truth. It’s about time that someone believes them.
To learn more about Naomi’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile.
Women experience poverty at rates much higher than men, and are more likely to head single-parent households—it’s a perfect storm, and holistic representation is crucial.
Naomi Young /
Equal Justice Works Fellow