Mercer Law Assistant Professor Bonnie Carlson’s eyes — and ears — were opened to the issue of domestic abuse during her freshman year at the University of Virginia. The event was a Take Back the Night meeting in her dorm — a chance for women to discuss openly, but anonymously, their experiences as victims of sexual violence.
“Suddenly I heard a familiar voice,” Carlson recalls, “and that kind of shook me — because I couldn’t believe that something like that could happen to someone that I knew.”
The personal awakening set her on a path to be an advocate for domestic violence victims. After earning her Juris Doctor at the George Washington University Law School, she worked as a technical assistance staff attorney with the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence. She was awarded the National Association of Women Lawyers Outstanding Law Graduate Award for her work with domestic violence victims during law school. She also worked as a family law staff attorney, representing victims of domestic violence.
Was the practice ever overwhelming?
“Yes,” she says with a brief laugh. “One of the first cases that I had was a woman who was stabbed in the face by her father. So it wasn’t a classic, intimate partner relationship. I had been sworn in to the bar two months earlier,” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘This is not what I expected. I’m not qualified for this.’”
But she was. She represented other victims of extreme violence, and just as often, cases of control and intimidation — like the fellow seeking child custody from his ex, who issued frivolous filings simply to make the harassed mother of his children show up repeatedly in court to face him. Because he represented himself, Carlson had to work with the man directly and got a sense of the psychological abuse her client experienced.
“I still sometimes walk down the street and think I see him,” she says.
When she first moved from practice to academia in the fall of 2016, the first class Carlson taught was legal research and writing — a class she hated as a student.
“I felt it was really confusing, and I wasn’t passionate about legal research,” she says.
But teaching the course herself was different.
“I loved it, and I thought, ‘If I can really, really enjoy teaching something that I am sort of ambivalent about, I think I would love teaching something I really care about. That’s what led me to the Georgetown Domestic Violence teaching fellowship,” she says. “I was like, ‘Yes, this is absolutely what I want to be doing permanently.’”
In her first year at Mercer University, Carlson taught the law of lawyering, family law and a new seminar, poverty and the law. In the fall semester of 2022, she launched and now oversees a Domestic Violence Clinic modeled on the one she co-taught at the Georgetown University Law Center. She intends only for six to eight students to be involved, with a preference for third-year students. There is tremendous interest in the program, with six students chosen to participate in the clinic’s inaugural year.
“We will spend the fall learning substantive Georgia domestic violence law and some other areas of family law, and learning trial schools and basic client skills: client interviewing, client counseling, how to do a direct examination, how to get an exhibit introduced into evidence, how to make a closing argument,” she says. “They’ll also do some court observation, and then in the spring starting in January they will start taking on clients.”
The clinic will be partnering with Crisis Line and Safe House of Central Georgia, where students will meet clients who want to file for temporary protection orders or protection orders.
Carlson explains, “Students will interview clients, fill out a petition, file it and then do all of the work on the case: investigation, drafting child documents, figuring out a trial strategy, talking to witnesses and then either negotiating a settlement or taking the case to trial.”
Born and raised in Arlington, Virginia, Carlson lived in the Washington, D.C., area her whole life until moving to Mercer and Macon in June 2021. (Her family, an eye doctor mom and a retired financial-planner dad, plus her brother and his husband, remain there.)
“It seems like the (Mercer) students really seem to want to practice law and are interested in ways to give back to the community,” she says. “That’s something that I’ve been impressed with here, the philanthropic spirit of the students.”
She’s also enjoyed being in Macon and doesn’t miss the Beltway traffic of the D.C. area. If she wants to take in some baseball, she’ll go to a Macon Bacon game at Luther Williams Field; she doesn’t miss the strategizing necessary to drive to a Washington Nationals game, much less the $40 parking. And she’s enjoyed such other things as the monthly storytelling events at Grant’s Lounge.
At home, she’s neighbors with a chemistry professor from Mercer’s main campus, and they often walk their dogs together. Carlson’s is a beagle-dachshund mix, a rescue named Henry. If she doesn’t miss D.C. traffic, he doesn’t miss the cold winters there.
“I’ve had him for six-and-a-half years, and he loves Georgia,” Carlson says. “He loves the weather.”
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the 2023 edition of the Mercer Lawyer magazine.