Arlene Violet May Be a Sister of Mercy, but in the Courtroom She's Known as 'attila the Nun'
Today, at 36, Sister Arlene exercises her social conscience in a different arena. She is the first nun ever to practice law in the state of Rhode Island. "She's comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," says one observer. Adds a Providence attorney: "She's one of the toughest and most respected lawyers in the Northeast." Others, less complimentary, call her "Attila the Nun" or "Sister Violent." True to her concept, Sister Arlene couldn't care less. "I take on the kinds of cases other attorneys don't want," she says. "I'm not out to make tons of dough. What I'm trying to do is fill in those areas of law where there's an unmet need. My clients have little money and big problems."
The daughter of a Providence alderman, Arlene was a gregarious teenager who startled family and friends alike when she elected to join the Sisters of Mercy. "People—even the nuns—were taking bets I wouldn't last a year," she laughs. "They figured I wasn't the type." Though she had little interest in a legal education ("It's a big bore"), she decided the degree was essential to achieve the reforms she sought. After graduating from Boston College Law School, she was admitted to the bar in 1974, and later served for a year as an assistant attorney-general for consumer affairs. In 1975, as president of a Fall River, Mass. daycare center, she boldly sued the local Catholic bishop for locking the organization out of a church-owned building. Though excommunication was a distinct possibility—"It was a no-no to sue the bishop back then," she says—Sister Arlene accepted the risk, and triumphed in an out-of-court settlement. The cases closest to her heart have always been those involving the rights of the poor and oppressed, especially the physically and mentally disabled. "I find these cases very emotional," she says. "If you mess up, you know these people are going to be in some back ward for years, perhaps for the rest of their lives."
Through every controversy, says Sister Arlene, she has had the enthusiastic support of her order, which by tradition is socially active. Her fellow lawyers, however, especially in heavily Catholic Rhode Island, often seem disconcerted by a nun in the courtroom. "These guys are talking to someone who represents all the teachers who taught them as kids," she says. "It makes them a little nervous." Some of them, too, are upset that Sister Arlene doesn't play by the rules of the club. "I love these guys," she says. "They're darling. But once I'm in a professional situation with them, I'm not going to compromise for the sake of the buddy system. They have to come through with a just settlement for my client, or I don't want to hear it."
Though she shares a Providence office with two other women lawyers, Sister Arlene totes her papers to court in a shopping bag. Away from her practice, she lives in a house in Warwick with several other Sisters of Mercy, doing household chores on weekends and participating in community meetings at night. Despite her heavy schedule, Sister Arlene teaches environmental law part-time at both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. And sometimes, in keeping with her notion of public service, Sister Arlene stops on her way home from the office to help an arthritic neighbor scrub her floors. "I think you have to stand with the people, be one of them, live the way they do and try to help," she explains. "The only thing I really want to do is keep alive a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in this society."
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