We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout our history: When people’s rights are threatened, it’s the lawyers who step up to the plate. Some are true Freedom Fighters, and they deserve special recognition. That’s why each month, we will feature lawyers who are really making a difference.
Today, we are proud to feature Tania R. Schmidt-Alpers.
Tania R. Schmidt-Alpers is legal counsel for Betty Griffin Center, whose mission is to provide protection and quality services for the victims of domestic violence and their minor children as well as victims of sexual assault and their families. She has dedicated her professional pursuits to helping victims of domestic violence for more than 20 years. Since 1997 she has also put in thousands of hours in pro bono work—most of it while maintaining a private law practice—which earned her a place among The St. Augustine Record’s 10 Who Make a Difference in St. Johns County in 2017 as well as the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council’s Women of Distinction 2017. In addition to individual legal advocacy for victims of violence, Tania has also been active in systemic advocacy through Pro Bono appellate cases resulting in the creation of new case law for survivors of domestic, sexual, and dating violence throughout Florida.
Here’s the interview:
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
While I was growing up, my father worked in the legal department of a large airline in New York. I would go to work with him from time to time and I became fascinated with what they did in his department. So, I decided I wanted to become an aviation law attorney. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized just how small and specialized the field of aviation law is. While I was in law school, I did an internship at the school’s family law legal clinic. I was assigned two cases, one of which was a domestic violence case. Handling that case was life-changing and eye-opening since I had not had any education or awareness of domestic violence issues. At that time law schools did not offer classes on domestic violence. As a result of that internship, I decided to focus on family law.
What was your most memorable case?
It’s hard to point to one “most memorable case,” as every single person I have represented is memorable. They are all incredibly important. I will say that my first appeal had the most profound impact on me. I was working with a judge, who was challenging and was not giving people due process. This was ongoing, and it seemed like the only way to inspire a change was to appeal his decisions. At the time, I had concerns that appealing to the next higher court might make things worse with him and that he might retaliate, but he didn’t. He took it well, and he changed the way he handled things. It also created case law for the State of Florida as a whole. Driving this systemic change was incredible and inspiring.
In considering the support and protection of victims of domestic violence, where do we stand today? What are our next legal hurdles?
Domestic violence awareness has changed significantly. In looking back at the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t even domestic violence shelters in many cities. So, to come to where we are now with places like the Betty Griffin Center, for example, represents enormous progress. From the legal side, we are light years ahead from that same point in history. When the initial domestic violence grant funding through the Violence Against Women’s Act (for civil legal representation) came in, everyone in the justice system became very focused on the rights of domestic violence victims. Since that time, I’ve seen the pendulum has swung backwards a bit again. We’re seeing a lot of victim blaming again rather than directing attention on holding the abuser accountable. More education is needed to change the way people view domestic violence.
What is the biggest challenge you face today?
Without a doubt, it’s volume. Sadly, there are so many people that need our services. We do a great job of handling that first emergency part, in terms of getting victims to safety and getting injunctions with ancillary relief. The need is then to carry the victims all the way through the legal process that they face, be it dissolution of marriage or paternity cases. However, grant funding is not there for those much needed matters. This is where pro bono attorneys are so valuable to keep these victims’ safe, empowered, and moving forward to a better life.
You’ve had so many successes. Which one stands out the most for you?
Again, it’s hard to say because they all matter. It is incredibly empowering to see someone years later who says, “You helped me and my family get out of a terrible situation and we are in such a better place today.” It’s those moments when I feel like I’m making a true difference, and that’s what success is for me.
If you could give one piece of advice to other lawyers across the country, what would you say?
I know we are all pressed for time and overwhelmed by family and work, and most people think “I don’t have time for pro bono work,” but make time for it. Find the time. You will be glad you did!
If an attorney wants to get involved in social justice, how can he or she get started?
I obviously look at social justice through the lens of domestic violence, which impacts a number of different legal fields. I would suggest to anyone considering getting involved, that they find an area, such as family law, immigration, housing, taxation, or another area that they feel passionate about or have a specialized skill in, and throw themselves into it. You can call your local domestic violence shelter or local legal aid office and offer to volunteer for needs that you can fulfill. You might be surprised at how much your assistance is needed and valued.
Kristin Johnson is an executive and corporate communications professional, and founder of KSJ Communications, a communications and public relations firm. She consults with a diverse roster of clients spanning the technology, professional services, financial services, public sector, consumer, and healthcare industries. In addition to Rocket Matter, Johnson writes for various other publications as well.