UCI Law alum inspires pro bono project at her law firm
Denisha McKenzie arrived at UC Irvine School of Law in August 2009, one of the school’s Inaugural Class, motivated to get a law degree so that she could help children. She brought with her a treasured photograph of a young girl she had met and assisted through a preschool learning enrichment program for low-income children.
Fast forward: Just a year after graduating from UCI Law, McKenzie won her first family law case, solidifying the reason she went to law school. Not only did she win the case, McKenzie secured additional legal assistance for domestic violence victims by initiating a pro bono project at the firm where she works.
“There’s such a great need for this legal assistance, and pro bono is in my blood, coming from UCI Law,” says McKenzie.
Beginning in her first year of law school, McKenzie logged many hours of pro bono work. She and classmate David Rodwin also started up a student organization, the Orange County Human Relations Association (OCHRA), to provide support to various marginalized communities and raise awareness of challenging social issues.
After graduation in 2012, McKenzie was hired as an associate at Allen Matkins in Irvine, a real estate and business litigation firm. She handles real estate litigation and labor and employment law cases. A few months into her new career, McKenzie started thinking about ways to incorporate the kind of pro bono work she enjoyed at UCI Law.
To do pro bono work, Allen Matkins associates needed to research and create their own projects and get approval from the pro bono committee. McKenzie knew who to call to get ideas for her project: Anna Davis, Director of Public Interest Programs at UCI Law, who gathers the plethora of pro bono options offered to UCI Law students each year.
Davis suggested two clients for McKenzie. Laura’s House is an organization that provides residential shelter and support services to nearly 3,500 families, and counseling, life skills education and legal assistance to over 40,000 individuals. Laura’s House clients were in need of legal representation at hearings of domestic violence cases.
Another agency, Community Service Programs, Inc. (CSP), is dedicated to providing services to keep at-risk youth out of the juvenile justice system and to help victims of crime as they are processed through the criminal justice system. CSP clients needed help in filing for temporary restraining orders against abusive partners.
When McKenzie discussed this project idea with Allen Matkins partner Stephen R. Thames, “He was completely on board with the project,” McKenzie says. As they talked more about it, Thames and McKenzie realized this domestic violence project could become an internal project for the firm, providing opportunities for any firm associates interested in pro bono work in this area. “I was pretty enthusiastic,” says Thames. “Defending domestic violence victims is pretty much an unassailable project.”
The firm’s pro bono committee enthusiastically approved the project, too. “We developed pro bono to a level we had never done before at this office,” says Thames.“Denisha was by far the biggest promoter, and craftsman, of this project.”
When the domestic violence program launched at the end of summer 2013, one of the first attorneys to sign up was Senior Counsel, Brian Bauer. By September, Bauer and McKenzie had their first Laura’s House case, involving a mother seeking protection for herself and her special needs child from further exposure to domestic violence in their home. The client was subjected to years of escalating abuse, including several incidences of physical, mental, and emotional abuse and criminal threats. The judge ruled in the client’s favor, issuing the legal finding of domestic violence and awarding a five-year permanent restraining order and sole physical and legal custody of the child to the mother.
“The client was super grateful, and that made it even more gratifying,” says McKenzie.
Since then, Bauer and McKenzie have each taken on other impactful Laura’s House cases, and both continue to help CSP clients file for TROs. “It’s a drop-in service,” says McKenzie. “You spend just two to three hours of time to listen to clients’ stories and draft the declaration in a form that is more likely to be admitted into evidence and to gain the judge’s attention.”
Says Bauer: “Our basic goal is to take a very intimidating process for the victim and guide the victim through it.”
The attorneys continue to be motivated by the sheer numbers of domestic violence victims and the gravity of their circumstances. “There’s no one face of a victim of domestic violence: Men, college students, working professionals, a single mom,” says McKenzie. “You never know who’s a victim of domestic violence.”