Seth Thomas is preparing to jump off what he calls the treadmill of private practice to help combat the “most horrific awful evil thing” — cybersex trafficking and online exploitation of children.
The partner at Ice Miller LLP will be taking a year sabbatical from his practice to work with a faith-based nonprofit in prosecuting the perpetrators and assisting the victims in court. This month, he and his family will be moving to the Philippines and he will begin volunteering with International Justice Mission.
“I think every lawyer goes to law school with the desire for justice and somewhere in the midst of building a practice and just maintaining client confidences and expectations, I think you get … on this treadmill that is practice,” Thomas said. “I think this was a unique opportunity of a specified duration and gives us the privilege of jumping right in with this particular work.”
Thomas, a graduate of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, is joining the IJM team in Manila just as the office there is transitioning to cybersex trafficking. Previously, the attorneys went after the individuals running the brothels and other establishments that sold minors in the sex trade. That program is now being turned over to Philippine law enforcement and IJM is turning its attention to the internet.
The nonprofit, according to Thomas, will be part of the entire prosecution process. It will help with sorting through the thousands of tips that come in every month and also work with the prosecutors, serving as co-counsel and representing victims.
Cybersex trafficking is sex trafficking gone digital. Boys and girls are forced to perform sexual acts while pedophiles and predators around the world watch online. IJM called the Philippines a “hotspot for cybersex trafficking” because internet access is growing and English is widely spoken. The nonprofit reported that 54 percent of the victims it has rescued from this type of crime are between 1- and 12-years-old.
“It’s one of those things that nobody likes to talk about. It’s the most horrific awful evil thing that you can discuss … but we all want it to end,” Thomas said. “And the people in the Philippines, this is their need. They need a dramatic change in the legal system.”
Although he will not be able to practice law in the Philippines, Thomas, who will serve as a field office legal fellow, believes his skills and expertise will be useful.
As a litigator often involved in environmental disputes, he has experience handling complex cases and million-plus pages of documents. Also, he will be able to call upon his past work in the courtroom to help the IJM team develop trial strategy.
Steven Humke, chief managing partner at Ice Miller, said other attorneys at the firm have stepped away from their practices in the past but none have done quite the same work as Thomas is preparing to do.
“He’s very brave,” Humke said of Thomas. “This is a big change for him and his family leaving and going to a world very different. It takes a great amount of guts to do something like this.”
Extricating from a busy practice can be difficult but, Humke said, the professional rewards are worth the effort. Attorneys tend to come back with a broader view and deeper breadth of experience. Also upon returning, they typically are looking to make changes rather than settling into the same type of practice.
Still, the decision to step away required a lot of careful thought for Thomas and his wife, Kristi. They have roots in Indiana and four fairly young children whom they would be taking to an unstable part of the world.
Thomas was in the middle of contemplating why he and his family should do this when he got the answer. It happened on a Saturday when he joined his son and his cross-country teammates for a run. On the back of the students’ T-shirts was the motto “Don’t Wish, Do.”
“It seems like it’s a big ask, but we consider it a big privilege to be part of the work and to give whatever we can do,” he said.
In leaving his practice, Thomas has done a lot of coordinating and enjoyed a little luck. He first talked to the firm’s managing partners, then he began letting his clients know of his plans and shifting work to his colleagues.
From there, things started to align. The cases and trial schedules got in sync so he had an opening to take a temporary absence. In addition, the fundraising the family undertook to make sure they could support themselves for a year with no salary was successful, closing in on the $135,000 goal in just a few months.
On a quick trip to the Philippines, Thomas was able to find a house for his family to rent. Also, the children were all able to enroll in a local international school.
“Part of this is a faith journey,” Thomas said. “It’s a matter of believing that taking that next step, not knowing if everything will work out. …It’s been great to see that we’re being right where we’re supposed to be and everything is kind of falling that way.”
Thomas and his family have developed a blog to record their experience in the Philippines, www.seekinghisjustice.com.•