Women of Substance & Style: Karen Barker Marcou and Kathleen Biden

by Virginia Coyne

Advocates for domestic abuse victims.

Karen Barker Marcou and Kathleen Biden of the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, photographed at Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, D.C.

They met on a playground when their children were young. Both were stay-at-home moms who had given up careers to raise their kids. Their friendship was forged during runs through Rock Creek Park and Kathleen Biden became Karen Marcou’s biggest cheerleader when Marcou co-founded the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP) ten years ago. The organization provides pro-bono legal services to domestic violence victims and children at risk. For years, Biden, the former daughter-in-law of Vice President Joe Biden, lent her support and volunteered as much as she could. In August 2017 she joined DCVLP full time, and the longtime friends, who still run together regularly (and joke about still owning the same running shorts they wore 18 years ago) have united on a professional level to champion women and children who can’t fight for themselves in court.

Washington Life: Tell us about the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project and its mission.

Karen Barker Marcou: I co-founded it with two other women attorneys, who had also taken time off from the full-time practice of law to be with their children, because we wanted to practice pro-bono to help domestic violence victims and at-risk children. But we couldn’t find a group that would allow us to work without malpractice insurance. We also needed office space and litigation support, so we decided to start our own organization. That was in 2008. Today we have over 2,000 registered volunteer attorneys and have helped almost 1,000 victims and children this year alone.

Kathleen Biden: The beauty of our program, which makes it a very unique volunteer opportunity, is that you can sign up to take one case. If you take a civil protective order, for example, it’s about a two week commitment. And because we utilize mostly volunteer attorneys, we’re able to take every $1 that’s donated to DCVLP and transition it into $4 of legal services.

KM: We’re a very cost effective organization. Additionally, over 90 percent of the money we raise at our annual fundraising event goes directly to support our programs.

WL: How important is it that victims have legal representation?

KM: There’s a right to counsel in criminal cases, but no right to counsel in civil cases, so if you’re being abused or stalked, representation is really important because it’s scary to go and face your abuser alone in court.

KB: We have a 95 percent success rate in cases that go forward. Of course, there are always people, even domestic violence survivors, who decide to go back to their abusers. The statistics show that it takes a woman seven times to leave her abuser — seven tries! — because he says he loves her, or she’s worried about the kids or finances or affordable housing. So, when our clients do choose to go back to their abusers we give them our card and say “call us when you’re ready.” Often they come back.

WL: Kathleen, you only recently came on full time, correct?

KB: Yes. I’m director of strategic partnerships, It has given me so much confidence. And I feel as if my impact is important. It’s been an incredible opportunity for me to get back into the work force. It’s easy to be passionate about this.

WL: You’re doing so much good for others, but it seems you’re receiving something in return, correct?

KM: A side benefit of the organization is that we’ve helped many women on-ramp back into the workforce after taking time off. They’re really nervous when they first take cases again, but it’s kind of like riding a bike. Then they realize, “Wow, I’m good at this” and a lot of them have gone on to re-enter the field and find great jobs. And, of course, working with our clients is so inspiring. We get just as much out of it as they do. Helping them through the process of leaving an abusive relationship, honestly, it’s an honor to do it because they’re so courageous and just watching the courage and the resiliency that they have is really inspiring. It puts your own life and your own struggles in perspective. KB: When a client stands in court with an attorney on either side of them, you can almost see it physically, it gives them a sense of support and confidence they wouldn’t otherwise have as they face their abuser. It’s really powerful.

WL: Where can victims go for help? And how can willing volunteers reach you?

KM: If you’re a victim of domestic violence, we have a walk-in clinic every Wednesday afternoon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest D.C. that we operate with our partners DASH (District Alliance for Safe Housing) and My Sister’s Place, where survivors can access housing, counseling, and legal resources all in one convenient, lowbarrier setting. And if you’d like to volunteer, whether you’re a tax attorney or a patent attorney, even if you haven’t practiced law in 20 years, you can take a case with us. We will give you everything you need — the training, the supervision and the support. You can sign up to be a volunteer on our website, www.dcvlp.org.

Karen and Kathleen’s Style: When it comes to fashion, the two women agree they’re both minimalists. “Not a lot of makeup, heavy on the lip balm,” jokes Biden, who admits she is a big fan of costume jewelry to dress up her usually black outfits.

“I’ve always been a tomboy and I spend a lot of time outdoors. I’m not very comfortable getting dressed up … or doing this photo shoot,” Karen says.

“My day-to-day is very simple and easy,” add Kathleen. (Her new favorite bottoms are elastic-waist pants from Ann Mashburn in Georgetown). “But I love a good dress and I got to wear so many great ones over the course of the eight years that my family was part of the Obama Administration.”

This story appears in the April 2018 issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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