Victims of human sex trafficking face not only the private trauma of coercion and exploitation, but also, all too often, a very public record of their ordeal in the form of a criminal history if they have been forced into prostitution and related offenses. Having a criminal record wrongly stigmatizes trafficking victims and survivors and can prevent them from finding employment, stable housing, and the other basic services that are necessary to move on with their lives. But, as attorney Meredith Walsh has experienced firsthand, that’s where a lawyer can step in to help. By helping trafficking victims use a state law passed for the express purpose of vacating their criminal records, Meredith and other pro bono attorneys give their clients a fresh start.
Meredith received her undergraduate degree from Fairfield University and her law degree from Seton Hall School of Law. After law school, she worked for Citigroup (formerly Salomon Smith Barney) in their Executive Compensation Benefits group. She then joined McCarter & English for two years, before becoming an office administrator at a family law firm. Meredith then worked as Chief Administrative Officer at a small private equity firm, before returning to McCarter in 2015, where she has been ever since. Meredith works as an Associate in the Tax, Employee Benefits and Private Clients Practice Group, focusing on employee benefits and ERISA, and counseling Human Resource departments on benefits compliance issues.
When Meredith learned about an opportunity to provide pro bono services to a victim of human trafficking, she jumped at the chance. Meredith recalls that the client had become stranded with no money after traveling to New Jersey from the west coast. For the next month, she was trafficked by a man who controlled her every move and physically abused her. The client was eventually arrested for prostitution in Atlantic City. “I didn’t realize what these victims went through until I saw the facts firsthand,” said Meredith. “I wanted to use my free time to try to help these women.” Thanks to the services Meredith and the McCarter team provided, the client’s criminal record was successfully vacated, and she was able to start a business, change her name, and make a new life for herself.
“Meredith has shown a true passion for helping trafficking victims, some of our most vulnerable clients,” said Jessica Kitson, Managing Attorney. “She has been an enormous asset to our Trafficking Program from the very beginning, and we are so lucky to have her as a volunteer.”
Meredith appreciates working with VLJ because of the effort that is made to identify clients who are truly in need of help and have nowhere else to go. “VLJ protects disenfranchised people without any resources who really don’t know where to turn,” said Meredith. She enjoys working as part of a team with VLJ to ensure that clients feel like they are provided with top-quality pro bono services from start to finish. Soon after successfully representing the woman who’d experienced trafficking, Meredith volunteered to take on a pro bono expungement matter through VLJ’s ReLeSe (Reentry Legal Services) program. She is now in the process of assisting a veteran expunge his criminal record in order to obtain employment.
Meredith’s commitment to pro bono work is truly commendable. In addition to her work with VLJ to serve low-income people directly, Meredith also takes on assignments from Pro Bono Partnership, representing newly established non-profits. She learned about the group while serving as Legal Chair on the board of the Ramapo Bergen Animal Rescue from 2008 to 2017. “I knew from being on the client side how much they helped,” said Meredith. She then established her own non-profit, Real Dog Rescue, Inc., which rescues dogs in the U.S. and internationally and works to place them in homes. They have rescued about 200 dogs over the past year and a half. Meredith herself has 6 rescue dogs.
Meredith believes pro bono work is crucial. “We as attorneys are blessed with the knowledge of navigating the courts,” she said. “It doesn’t take much effort or sacrifice on our part to help. It’s the least we can do for being in the situation we’re in.” She feels lucky to work at a firm that shares her values. “Pro bono is really encouraged at McCarter. As an attorney, it’s important that your employer support your efforts too. I’m grateful that McCarter encourages pro bono and the desire to help low-income people in addition to our regular billable clients.”