Tia Canlas is not what you expect in a trial lawyer. The 29-year-old sometimes swallows her words and peppers her plain speak with “likes” and “ums.” In person, she is fresh-faced and eager, sporting quasi-granny hipster glasses and sparkly gold nails. The tattoo on her wrist quotes The Little Prince, in the Filipino language Tagalog: “Do you collect butterflies?” it reads.
Filipina-American Canlas, who prefers her whole, long name — Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas — is a novice, with just four cases under her belt. Her law office is a rented desk in an architectural firm, and she often meets clients at a coffee shop. But Canlas is worth paying attention to, not for her track record (which is limited) but for her big idea. The young attorney, who represents victims of domestic violence, has a potentially explosive idea about the law: Bring civil suits against domestic abusers, not just criminal ones.
To wit, she sues the jerks instead of trying to lock them up.
Count among their ranks one Clyde Berg, a Silicon Valley real estate mogul.* Canlas represents his former wife, Ellena — she is Canlas’ fifth client ever — in a domestic violence suit. It’s a high-profile case not just because of the millions at stake or the horrific violence Ellena Berg alleges, but also because the strategy is relatively new. While violence victims have found redress in civil court before — think of Nicole Brown Simpson’s family, who won $33.5 million from O.J. Simpson after losing the criminal case — the strategy hasn’t gone mainstream for most domestic violence survivors, who can’t afford the slog through a lawsuit.
“I think she’s filling a huge gap in the legal world,” says Nancy Lemon, Canlas’ former law professor at Berkeley and a leading expert on domestic violence. It’s rare to fight domestic violence in civil court, Lemon says. Some family practice attorneys will do it, but they charge hefty fees. Canlas is pinching pennies to do it the nonprofit way.
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News story from Ozy.com