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Leader of the Year

Varky is 9-1-1 for those who help domestic violence victims

Varky_MAINThe Virginia Lawyers Weekly “Leader of the Year” has devoted her 23-year legal career to helping vic­tims of domestic and sexual abuse.

Susheela Varky of Richmond was one of 26 lawyers honored in the Class of 2016 of Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s “Leaders in the Law” program last month. She was tapped as “Leader of the Year” by a vote among the class.

The 2016 Leaders, along with an inaugural class of 14 “Up and Coming Lawyers,” were recognized at an Oct. 27 ceremo­ny at Richmond’s Hotel John Marshall.

Varky is an advocate against family violence at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. She takes calls from all over the state from victims as well as professionals who are trying to help victims.

Varky said she moderates a listserv for service providers and often provides quick, free legal advice to police and social service staffers working with victims.

“I feel like that’s a very helpful thing for me to be that con­duit,” Varky said.

She noticed recently that her phone number is at the bot­tom of a form given to victims when they seek help at the courthouse. The form is titled “What You Need to Know About Protective Orders.”

“Everyone in Virginia who asks for a protective order gets my number,” she said.

Early focus on public interest

Varky says she knew at an early age that she wanted to be a public interest lawyer.

She learned from her family that help­ing the less fortunate was a priority.

“I sort of grew up with that mentality,” she said.

But the idea of advocacy may have “jelled” with a visit to a prominent educa­tor when Varky was only 12 or 13. She was introduced to the headmaster at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts. After a short conversation, the headmaster re­marked, “That one’s going to be a lawyer.”

Varky said she took those words to heart.

While she set her sights on a legal ca­reer, Varky endured and observed domes­tic abuse first-hand in her family.

“I witnessed a lot as a child,” she said. Despite trouble, her family stayed togeth­er.

“My mother made choices that I don’t know that I would make,” Varky said. Varky now helps others using insights she gained about family violence.

Instead of asking why victims don’t leave an abusive home, Varky said the public should ask why we accept battering in the first place. She hopes to see stud­ies and interventions to foster a different mindset for those inclined to violence.

Unique rewards

Varky graduated from law school at American University in 1993 and prompt­ly went to work for a tiny advocacy and assistance program in Washington called Women Empowered Against Violence.

The outfit grew from a spare bedroom to an organization that provided “legal services, case management, counseling – the whole nine yards,” Varky said.

Varky moved on after four years, but not to improve her financial position. In three moves, she took three pay cuts, she said.

Even after raises over later years, Varky knows the public interest life is not the way to get rich. But she sees better paid lawyers who don’t have the same job satisfaction, she said.

“They may be making a whole lot more than I am, but they’re not happy day-to-day. I want to do something that matters,” she said.

Varky doesn’t see her choice as a sac­rifice.

“I don’t have an ulcer. I’m healthy. I don’t feel bad about what I do.”

Legislative work

When she is not providing advice for family violence victims and others on the front lines, Varky has worked for change at the legislature.

She welcomed, with some surprise, the bi-partisan collaboration that approved the new law requiring domestic abusers to surrender firearms within 24 hours of being served with a protective order. The law passed this year and took effect in July.

Looking ahead, Varky would like to make it easier to put the law into action.

“I would like to see funding and resourc­es to make this prohibition on possession of firearms more useable for communi­ties,” she said. Money for police storage lockers would be one way to help, she said.

Varky also hopes to see more inter­vention programs targeting batterers to “prevent that criminal behavior before it starts.”

Private attorneys can help by commit­ting to more long-term work on custody, visitation and child support issues, Varky added.

“Those are the types of comprehensive legal services that victims really need,” she said.

Varky – who often has to provide brief legal advice to someone who really needs a full-time advocate – said she would wel­come a more reliable funding mechanism for legal aid offices.

Virginia now has voluntary IOLTA. Varky would like to see it made automatic that interest on lawyers’ trust accounts goes to support free legal help for those who need it.