In this second installment of our “I’m An Advocate” series, Kay Field shares how she came to be a legal advocate, and what her volunteer work entails.
Legal issues can present a huge challenge for women and families who are in instable housing situations and seeking permanent stable housing. Since creating the free family law clinic at YWCA Pathways for Women in 2002, Kay Field has helped many low-income women in Snohomish County navigate the legal system and fight for their rights.
Last year Kay received the Washington State Bar Association’s Pro Bono Award in recognition of her advocacy and community work. She served on the Edmonds Community College Board of Trustees from 2002 to 2007, including a term as its president. She was chair and co-chair of the Snohomish County Bar Association Family Law Committee from 1996 to 2001. She has also served with Columbia Legal Services, Washington Women Lawyers, the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, the Child Abuse Prevention Association of Washington, and the Snohomish County Children’s Commission.
Kay received her undergraduate degree from the College of Idaho and graduated in the top 20% of her class at University of Washington School of Law. She also holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Washington, and is a certified mediator.
Thanks, Kay, for being a YWCA volunteer for 11 years! The YWCA Volunteer Services blog gave her a shout out post HERE.
Why are you an advocate?
My first job was in the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s office where, after six months handling DUI’s, I was suddenly thrust into a sex assault and child abuse (felony) caseload when a new boss was elected. I had no experience or training but joined a multi-disciplinary team that met monthly. This team was my start for working with community organizations. I was soon on the board for the local Child Abuse Prevention Council, and then many more. After seven years I left the prosecutor’s office and jumped into an active family law practice. Eleven months later, I adopted the first of my two children, the second two years later. I continued to work full time. I also did some judge and commissioner pro tem work presiding over cases in family law and juvenile court.
My oldest child did not attach normally and had a disorder having to do with sensory perceptions. She was a very hard child to raise, always in services of one type or another. It was a source of great sadness to my husband and me. When she was poised to enter junior high, everyone working with her insisted we put her into a small school and one parent stay home or the consequences would be dire. We took it seriously and I closed my law practice. A few months later I contacted Snohomish County Legal Services, who contacted Pathways for Women, with my offer of volunteer hours. One day a month offered became two days a week agreed upon, and the clinic opened over 11 years ago.
These life experiences have made me different than your typical lawyer.
What methods do you use to advocate?
I am an advocate for my clients in the sense that I become a member of their team, encouraging them, informally counseling them, and helping them achieve personal goals in addition to the legal steps they need to take. In this way I function differently and more broadly than many attorneys.
My advocacy involves finding out whether there is a legal problem with which I can help and then setting out reasonable steps for the client, working with me, to achieve the completion or solution of the legal problem. I encourage them to share with me information about their lives.
I have found that advocacy is complicated by the fact that most of my clients have serious problems with anxiety and/or depression to the extent that it hinders them from completing tasks. I solve this with patience, working as slowly as the client needs, doing as much as I can to work on the issues, and where appropriate referring clients to be evaluated for medication or treatment. I go so far as to write out a script to read at hearings for some clients who have to go to court. I have developed written instructions for each step a client must go through. I do as much as I can, except I cannot go to court with my clients.
What challenges do you encounter in your advocacy, and how do you overcome them?
My advocacy has become much more difficult with the downturn in the economy. I am getting more clients with more serious problems. And where once I was able to have SCLS [Snohomish County Legal Services] find pro bono lawyers for my clients in contested litigation, now there are not enough volunteer lawyers and my clients go without and have to get by with just my assistance. No legal clinic like mine, one lawyer and one volunteer to help with scheduling filing, is set up to handle cases in contested litigation. Still, I do the best I can.
What’s your favorite advocacy success story?
One of my favorite stories about is a client who had a baby outside of marriage. The father employed an attorney and kept winning at all the preliminary hearings, which went on for years. Though the mother kept primary custody, the child support was set very low, and the father kept harassing the mother and being very inappropriate with the child. My husband agreed to take on this case and take it to trial. It was a nasty, hard-fought case for my husband, who had no prior family law experience. But the trial judge saw the father for the manipulative person he was, and gave us a good tough parenting plan and fair child support. Had this client not had an attorney for trial, the result would have been very different.
Want to read another inspiring advocate’s story? Check out the first “I’m An Advocate” post highlighting Kim Herman, Executive Director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.