Barbara Handschu has changed her practice from criminal law to family law, but she has never compromised on her passion to protect basic human rights.
Interview with Barbara Handschu, Family Lawyer
My guest today is New York family lawyer Barbara Handschu, who I have invited to speak with me today not only because of the fact that she has had an outstanding family law career and has contributed greatly to the practice of family law but also because Barbara has been an activist for change. We’ll be talking with her as a family lawyer, but also as a criminal lawyer and as an activist.
Before we get started, I want to give you just a brief little history of Barbara’s background. She has been very active in both the national and state bar associations. She was the first female national president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a prestigious family law group with about 1,700 lawyers across the US, and she’s one of the most respected family lawyers. In researching who to interview next Barbara’s name has come up a number of times, and I’m glad to have finally grabbed a hold of her.
To start at the beginning, Barbara, what got you interested and how did you get into the practice of law?
Well, anyone who knows me knows that if you say I can’t do something, that’s going to be the incentive enough for me to do it. In fact, in 1963 I had just about finished an undergraduate degree in 2½ years at NYU and was getting ready to figure out what I’d do with the rest of my life. I had a political theory major, which I decided was probably worthless because women weren’t getting college teaching degrees even if they could obtain a Ph.D. And then I said, “well, maybe I’ll go to law school” and everyone looked at me and said, “no, you can’t go to law school, there’s not going to be a job for you, you’re going to be taking a guy’s spot.” I had trouble getting money to attend law school, but thankfully the University of Michigan gave me money and I was able to go. So I went basically because I was told I wasn’t supposed to go.
That was enough of an incentive?
That was the absolute incentive, and I arrived in Michigan to discover that I couldn’t live in the law quadrangle where all the law students lived because I was a female and we were six women out of almost 350 in my class.
So there was one of us in each and every section, and needless to say that one woman would always get called on for big questions like the rape case in criminal law.
I learned those lessons very quickly, but I adored the law. To me, it was just fascinating to think about any issue from both sides and to be able to come up with arguments for them and just grapple with the concepts. So I decided being a lawyer was good now. Of course, back in those days (and I finished law school in 1966), I was told when I said I want to be a trial lawyer, “No. You’re too little, and besides women are only going to be able to do corporate law or estates.” And I said that’s not fun. I don’t want to be a lawyer if I can’t help people, if I can’t make a difference in this world. And if you think back to the 1960s they were incredibly exciting times. It was the beginning of the second wave of feminism, and the anti-war movement actually started at the University of Michigan with the first sit-in. Concepts of racial equality were being hard-fought all over the country and to me, these were important issues, so I decided I was going to be a people’s lawyer as quickly as I could. That’s what compelled me into the practice of law and what made me think about being a lawyer.
So while you were challenged by people saying that you wouldn’t get to be a lawyer-
A trial lawyer.
A trial lawyer. You probably would have been in the background. Female lawyers at that time would have been doing the paperwork and the research.
Women were not even being hired on that level. Basically, women were being hired by corporations or to do estate work or government jobs. I mean, there was very little out-front work for women in those days.
It sounds like they weren’t really acting as lawyers, just more as administrators who had a legal background.
You’ve come a long way.
In fact, for a long time, I hid the fact that I knew how to type because I was so afraid somebody was going to ask me to be a secretary.
I don’t think that would have suited you too well. Nowadays everybody types.
Now it helps on the computer.
Absolutely, we’re all our own secretaries now. So when did you get into your own practice or were able to go to trial? How did that happen?
In the late 1960s, I was in my own practice. I had worked for a judge before. I worked writing some law books even before that because I had student loans to pay off and I had to find jobs. At the same time, I was still staying politically active, so by the late 1960s, I had my own practice in New York City. That was an exciting time.
So your first goal was to obviously become a lawyer, and your second goal was to be in your own practice. After those two did other goals pop up that you wanted to achieve?
I think my main goal throughout was always to be the best lawyer that I could be and to do my best. That practice, for me, just evolved and evolved. My original days in private practice were criminal defense because those were the main things going on. I handled a few divorces, calling all my friends saying how do you do this and that, and suddenly I realized that I was doing more criminal work than I thought.
Then came 1971. I went up to Buffalo for what I thought was going to be a week to handle the Attica Prison cases because they needed legal help. I was active in the National Lawyer’s Guild and volunteers were needed to handle all the things that were going on at the Attica Prison after the rebellion in September of 1971. And that one week turned into 35 years or so.
Just tell us a little bit about the Attica Prison. What was going on there? What happened?
In September of 1971, the prisoners took over the prison with a list of demands, the primary of which was to have then-Governor Rockefeller come to the prison and negotiate. He refused to come and negotiate and after days of the inmates running the prison, it was retaken by the National Guard. I think it was 39 people were killed. All the prisoners had horrible retaliation. They were put in segregation for months. They were ultimately transferred to prisons all over the state and there were, as I recall, 41 indictments of prisoners for various things. I ended up working on a case that involved one of the prisoners in a murder of another prisoner during the uprising. My co-counsel was Bill Kunstler, may he rest in peace.
Suddenly I was working on a murder case. I was a very inexperienced lawyer at that point. I had tried one case ever, a very long bomb possession case in New York City, and I had tried that in the fall of 1971, so you can tell how little experience I had.
A trial by fire in your case.
Well, luckily one with lots of co-counsel, especially since it was Attica. Attica had a lot of lawyers working on it all over the country. People came in to do it. It was just a massive, massive case.
Tell us a little bit about your other political activities, not that this is necessarily political in nature, but I think it is to a certain extent because it’s about change. And I have a sense from what I know about you that what is at your core is a deep feeling of wanting to protect individual rights no matter who the person is.
Thank you. That’s probably true, and Attica was really about change. The whole uprising had a number of demands, many of which were just for humane treatment. And as recently as sometime this week as I was looking at our law journal in the City of New York, and I saw that there was a new case filed because people were being kept in segregation at a prison for months on end, and it was those kinds of conditions that led to Attica and the uprising. They just wanted proper religious time to observe religious observances, if they were non-traditional to not be held in segregation without hearings, things of that nature. That was what brought that about. But over the years, in terms of my activism, non-matrimonial law, there’s a lawsuit in New York that’s called Handschu against Bureau of Special Services. It’s a class action against the New York City Police Department, and it is the longest-running federal case in the district court. I have quite an honor. It’s 42 years old and I also have the honor of having six lawyers who have represented me and our class for that number of years, and who’ve all done it pro bono.
I don’t think many people could claim that they love their lawyers. One day my lawyers invited me to come to court and I said, “oh, I’ll come to court, sure.” And then they asked the judge’s permission for me to sit at counsel table and the judge looked up and, the judge has had this case for probably 20 and more years. He looked up and he said, “Ms. Handschu, I feel I know you well. Please, join us at table.”
So is there any chance of a conclusion to this case or is it going to go on for perpetuity?
This case is going to go on forever and ever. It’s a very important case that has to do with whether or not the police department can single individuals out and conduct surveillance upon those individuals. And we had filed this case way back and my lawyers thought it would be a joke to put me as the first name plaintiff. And some people, like Abbey Hoffman, Jerry Reuben, they were upset that I got my name there first. But basically, we did it because we felt there were individuals from various groups who were being singled out and otherwise lawful activities were becoming the focus of surveillance, and this surveillance should not be happening. So over the years what has evolved is something that’s called the Handschu Authority. That is, a commission in effect that the police department has to go to if they’re going to conduct surveillance. Now after 9/11, the Handschu Authority was ordered down due to a claim that there was national security at stake.
I was actually one of the plaintiffs who objected to any changes in what was originally the agreement that formed the Handschu Authority. One of the things that have come up in recent years has been New York City’s fine on Muslim groups, including groups outside New York City, sending New York City police to spy on services at mosques in the State of New Jersey for instance. That’s led to some more litigation under the Handschu case. There’s some discovery going on right now.
So do you ever get people criticizing you for helping what could potentially be terrorist groups? Has that ever come up?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think the thing that’s come up is that there’ve been so little restraints at this point in terms of the surveillance that people are very frustrated. It’s hard to imagine that the money from New York City is being spent on looking at otherwise lawful activities of Muslims in the State of New Jersey or Connecticut. That’s where the New York City Police were looking. I have not had any kind of questions about whether this is deterring doing something that would not protect us against terrorism.
Would you like to hear about more political activism that I’m very proud of?
Sure. Yes, please, if you want to continue on go ahead.
When I was up in Buffalo the County of Niagara, which is just north of Buffalo and Erie County, passed an ordinance that would have required women to look at pictures of dead fetuses before they could have an abortion. I looked at this, went out to the Niagara County legislature, and said to them, “You know, you can’t do this. This is something for the state to regulate. You’re not allowed to do this, and if you do this I’m going to sue you, and if I win I’m giving my money to causes that help women’s rights and gay rights. So whatever you pay me, you’re going to really be supporting causes you probably don’t believe in.” Well they didn’t believe me and I ended up filing a case called Susan B. and this is back in the late 1970s when there had been one other similar ordinance in Akron, Ohio.
Well, the case ended up going up to the United States Supreme Court on papers. It was never argued. And we won all the way through. We won on an easy one, which is called a state pre-emption that the state is the only one that can take care of medical issues. But nonetheless, it was one of my favorite cases. I really felt it made a difference; it protected New York State and it felt really like the right thing to do.
Do you think that case would prevent any other state or any other jurisdiction from implementing such craziness?
From individual ordinances, if there is a health authority that controls the state, yes. The underlying abortion issue and the woman’s right to choose was not litigated; we had just a very easy win. Nowadays states are trying to impose a number of limitations on reproductive freedoms in the United States and they’ve been encroaching on people’s rights. These encroachments can be anything from a restriction for how much time has to pass before an abortion can be performed or a claim that the abortion provider or the medical provider has to have certain facilities that just aren’t plausible in poorer states. So there have been lots of encroachments happening, but at least I felt I had contributed to putting off an onslaught on these issues, and now perhaps who knows, maybe the US Supreme Court will be a little bit more inclined to protect a woman’s right to reproductive freedoms.
Do you think there’s the same energy, for change, and to keep pushing back, that there was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?
I don’t think so in a variety of ways. I think some of the issues were so concrete in the ‘60s and ‘70s: a war in Vietnam that was to so many of us very wrong, the oppression of third world people, the oppression of women and same-sex people, these were just some of the issues that were at the forefront. They were so easy to define. I mean, every time I’ve discussed reproductive freedoms, with groups of younger women primarily, they look at me like I’m crazy. They don’t understand what an illegal abortion used to be. They don’t understand that women were dying of self-inflicted wounds or going to backroom butchers because they were poor and couldn’t afford to go to England or to Puerto Rico at that point.
Or Canada, yeah. I mean, that’s what has changed, and I think, I hope we don’t have to live in a day where we have to re-teach some of these lessons.
Right. Are there any other political activities or success?
Well, I got to do several exciting trips over the years, from the ‘70s on. I went to Cuba several times, primarily as a guest of the government. I went to Nicaragua right after the Sandinistas took over the country. I had to do with a human rights investigation covertly in Guatemala, and we issued a report to the United Nation on human rights violations and issues affecting trade unionists who were getting killed.
Were any of these going on while you were practicing law; how did you manage to juggle this?
I managed to juggle a lot of different things, and they all were going on while I practiced law, but one of the advantages of basically being in my own practice was that I had the ability to define my own time. So if a wonderful opportunity like a National Lawyers Guild trip to Nicaragua presented itself I could just go. I could take a week off and not have to worry, just making sure to let judges and clients know that I was unavailable. I was very lucky that way.
So is this how you managed to keep your sanity? My feeling is that you don’t like focusing on just one thing at a time, that you like to have your eyes and ears open for what’s out there.
That’s an accurate assessment and, in fact, I think it’s typical of my practice years, my heavy practice years when I loved having a variety of cases with a variety of people.
And what kind of cases most inspired you? What kind of person would be your favorite client?
I’ve had a bunch of favorites, but I think probably the type of case that has always most inspired me has been a custody case. To me, children are not fungible; they’re irreplaceable. A child’s right to good access to parents, assuming they’re not at risk, is an important factor. I’ve always represented a parent (I’ve not been a child’s lawyer, except once for a comatose teenager whose parents wanted to pull the feeding plug), and as a parents’ lawyer custody cases have always excited me the most and that’s where I think most of my energy has gone. It’s certainly my energy in terms of many, many years of working with the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers as well as all of the other organizations that have always been towards the protection of children.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your accomplishments regarding the American Academy?
I’d love to. I think I had a hand in virtually every children’s issue that the Academy has commented on, going back to things like The Voices of Children, which was a pamphlet we were giving out which pointed out the problems that children face and some of the practical things that can be done. There was also putting together a video called “Listen to Children,” which consisted of children’s own stories about divorce. Every one of those children had a particular story, and there wasn’t a script for them to read from. It was filmed in Texas and when I went down to meet them I was just so impressed with these kids, including the one that said because his father lives somewhere else that his father didn’t love him, and he felt so bad. You can’t listen to kids without feeling that.
You’re touched by it.
Oh absolutely. I was also instrumental in the Academy’s model relocation act, which took us about two years to put together, parts of which have been enacted by various states. I guess the thing that I’m probably the proudest of was the Academy’s parenting plan. It was the cornerstone of my presidency year and it was a model act that had various provisions for parenting plans. It was computer-friendly, and it was designed for lawyers, judges, and parents to use. It was designed to provoke discussions, to lead to agreements, and one of the things that it did, which was unusual for early parenting plans, is that we designated age access appropriate parenting time. So for instance, with an infant, we recommended that it be frequent access, and then left blanks for people to be able to fill in what that frequency should be.
But up until then, there really had not been many plans that suggested that very young children need frequent but probably very limited access to a parent with whom they are not living full time.
As for other things that I did for the Academy, I worked very hard on the standards for lawyers representing children and worked hard on what was, I think, our first brief filed with the United States Supreme Court. It was in the Truxle case and it was a funny story because we discovered that when we had agreed as an executive committee to file the brief, I looked up and said (and I had worked on portions of the brief in terms of writing it), “Who’s going to sign it? Is anybody other than me eligible?” I was not a president; I think I was a vice president at that time. And everybody looked around and said, “Barbara, you’re it.” Because of my old activist work, I had been admitted to the Supreme Court. So I got to sign our Amica’s brief and I actually took a phrase out of it, so I was very proud of that.
Barbara, I’ve talked to many family lawyers, and when I ask them about retiring, they kind of glaze over and they don’t know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t seem to be a word they understand. So I don’t see retiring being in the near future for you. What do you see for yourself in the next five, ten years?
Well, I’ve had some changes in my life. I closed my Buffalo office about two years ago. I’m special counsel at a New York City matrimonial office, which is a wonderful thing to be because it means I can define my own time.
Well, I’ve never seen special counsel before. I’ve seen counsel, but I think you must be super special, for them to call you special counsel.
I’d love to think that, but special counsel and counsel are pretty much the same. It means you have some kind of a senior status. Most recently I was hired as an expert witness on a New York prenuptial agreement to testify in a Connecticut case, and I really liked that kind of work because there it’s intellectual work of the highest level in terms of grappling with ideas, coming up with a theory, looking at cases. And all you have to do is go into court and tell a judge about your law. No client calls first thing in the morning after a long weekend complaining. It’s totally delightful.
So is that where you see you’ll be placing your attention in the next year?
I think I’ll probably continue to write. I currently write for the National Law Journal on a matrimonial column. I probably will be doing a little bit of teaching as well. I’ve put the word out that I would do some teaching on trial techniques, which I had done for a very long time, about 22 years. That I’d do some teaching for those who are representing battered spouses because there are newer lawyers there who probably would appreciate some help. So I think in terms of the professional, that’s probably what I’m going to do. But I do hope that I can balance it out with having fun, because I’m absolutely convinced that what keeps people healthy is the ability to feel good, laugh at themselves, and have a life that feels good to you, that you look forward to waking up in the morning.
Well, it seems like you’ve always been enthusiastic about something, whether it’s your family law practice, your criminal law practices, or simply your outside interests. Why is it that you view life as being a thrill? It appears to me that whenever you’ve faced challenges you took them on as opportunities; instead of being pushed down by them, they added to your life. Is there anything in particular about you or your background that helped in shaping this view of life?
Well, I think I’m the kind of person where the glass is always half full, and I’m always looking for things that make me happy and keep the days feeling good. For instance, I spend a lot of time doing exercise. I adore Pilates; I keep thinking maybe I’ll get certified one of these days and become a Pilates instructor. I think that would be exciting, but I’ll probably just keep doing Pilates for myself. I’ve been going back to Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is, which is one of my favorite places, and this year I got fare for two football games in the big house. I’m a big football fan. I’m going to see Michigan play basketball in Brooklyn on Saturday at the University of Michigan. So I do a lot of things like that and I spend a lot of time going to movies. I adore them. I watch everything I can. Those kinds of things make me happy and I think that really enriches my life; they are probably just as important as other things.
It sounds like you’ve figured out the right combination.
I hope so. I’ve been working on it. This is a work in progress.
Barbara Handschu has been pivotal in bringing family law to where it is today, and was the first female national president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. On top of that, she has also been a very outspoken activist and voice for change.