July 29, 2019

As attorneys put new legal theories of liability for sex trafficking to the test, they must balance the needs of these clients with the initiatives of traditional tort practice.

Attorney Michael Dolce is the only lawyer on Cohen Milstein’s website who isn’t wearing a tie. He keeps his dark hair a little mussed, and when he has a client meeting, the Florida attorney tries not to put a desk or a conference table between himself and his client.

More than 1,000 miles away in Philadelphia, attorney Nadeem Bezar has framed comic books in his office, and there are no coasters in sight. A lot of his client meetings take place over pizza, and oftentimes his client’s case isn’t discussed at all. Instead they watch TV.

For years, these attorneys have represented victims of sex trafficking and abuse, and they know that often the last thing a victim wants to do is detail the time their pimp tased them, or burned them with a curling iron, or withheld drugs from them so they would more easily comply with their pimp’s demands.

That is why Dolce and Bezar and those who practice in this area try to make connections with their clients as personal as possible.

“I try not to bring people to my office. I try to go to them, go to wherever they’d rather discuss. I put on a pair of jeans, and dispense with the briefcase and use a backpack. It’s to let them know it’s personal, and it’s real for them,” Dolce, himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, said. “I speak with them as a survivor before I speak with them as a lawyer.”

Attorneys said the first step in bringing a case is establishing trust between the victim and the attorney—a process that can be further complicated because most victims were, at least one point in their lives, taken advantage of by an authority figure.

“I don’t care how successful you are, or how many cases you handled,” Dolce said. “You are just another person in this person’s life in a long series of people who’ve abused them.

Civil practitioners, like Bezar and Dolce, whose firms do mass tort and class action work, respectively, both focus almost exclusively on abuse and sex trafficking cases, which, practitioners said, is key in making sure the victims are properly represented. They also said their firms give them the freedom to pursue these claims, even though recovery can be tough.

Insurance, for instance, is usually disclaimed in cases against motels or truck stops, and so usually there are no deep pockets to pursue.

New attorneys looking to take on this work should be ready to accept raising awareness as their biggest recovery, longtime practitioners said.

“We need as many hands on deck as we can get. This is such a horrific and underappreciated condition in our society. The private sector bar is a critical component,” Dolce said. “That said, I do want, and I do hope that those who join the fight recognize the uniqueness.”

Dolce said he once consulted with an attorney representing a child who had been raped six times in an institutional environment. The attorney, who typically handled slip-and-fall cases, told Dolce that he had demanded $6 million at a recent mediation. Dolce said when he heard this, his heart sank.

“You are setting a price on the rape of a child,” Dolce said he told the attorney. “You need to shift your focus.”

The work can also present risks for attorneys, who, like police officers, paramedics and trauma-specialists, would be likely to experience secondary trauma when diving into the details of these cases.

“The inhumanity people can visit upon others, particularly children, seems to know no bounds,” Dolce said. “We have to have a therapist we can turn to. A support group. You have to have the presence of mind to take the afternoon off if that’s what it takes to reground yourself.”

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