Little Rock lawyer Donna Smith Galchus aims to divert disputes before trouble starts
Published in 2013 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 8, 2013
Updated on November 12, 2013
A decade ago, Donna Smith Galchus took on a case involving a woman who found herself in the United States—and in trouble. The woman, who was a professional in her home country, met and married an American man. But when she moved to Arkansas with him, things turned ugly.
“She was kind of held captive by him,” recalls Galchus, an employment and immigration attorney at Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus in Little Rock, Ark. “She was working as a maid, cleaning rooms and these kinds of things, and he abused her.”
The man promised to help his wife—who knew no one in Arkansas and barely spoke English—file for a green card, but instead he used citizenship as a carrot to control her. Eventually, through Catholic Charities Immigration Services, the woman found her way to Galchus, who took the case pro bono. She knew about a provision for obtaining permanent-resident status in documented cases of abuse. “It’s very hard to get and we didn’t think we would get it,” she recalls. But the woman took pictures; and those, along with her account of the situation, were enough.
The woman ultimately obtained citizenship, and Galchus believes she went back to school.
“She didn’t bring any legal charges against him because she was afraid of him,” Galchus says. “But it all worked out. That was a very fulfilling case to work on.”
First and foremost, Galchus is an adviser to her employer clients.
“A lot of times I can divert potential lawsuits and help [companies] make the right decisions when they are looking to terminate someone, help them to make the right decision hiring or whatever the issue may be,” she says.
In 33 years of practice, Galchus has taken on many other roles as well, such as defending sexual harassment and discrimination cases, serving on the ABA’s Age Discrimination in Employment Act subcommittee, doing pro bono work with VOCALS (the Volunteer Organization of Center for Arkansas Legal Services), and publishing articles in human-resources trade journals.
In the early 1970s, Galchus was teaching college-level economics and statistics. She had to decide whether to complete a Ph.D in economics—which would put her in competition with her husband for university positions wherever they might move—or go into the law. She opted for the latter, graduating with her J.D. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in 1980, and passed the state Bar the same year.
With a background in economics and statistics, employment law seemed ideal. But in the early ’80s, aside from discrimination suits, that area was a sleepy corner of the law—particularly in Arkansas with its predominantly rural population. “I can remember one client who had his records out in the shed. We had to clean all the dirt and junk off,” she says.
The field of employment law has since taken off. “Part of it is just the increase on the plaintiff’s side in bringing lawsuits, and as the plaintiffs would say, there are a lot of employers who have no clue they are violating the law because of all the technical issues.”
Galchus was also an early entrant into immigration law, an area she first worked in during the 1990s after the only immigration lawyer at her firm left. She quickly became an expert at helping businesses ensure that their workers were properly documented. Now that a path to citizenship is again a possibility, Galchus predicts a wave of new businesses that will need her help navigating immigration issues.
“I foresee there are going to be employers who are going to say, ‘I have 10 employees who work for me and I didn’t know their papers were not right, but I want to help them,’” she says.
Galchus, who has two grown daughters, is still dispensing advice to them as well. One daughter, Mary Cooper, is a lawyer at her mother’s firm; the other, Tiffany Senavinin, is a human resources director for one of the firm’s clients. “Sometimes she will call and she will say, ‘Can I ask you a question? This one you can bill me for.’”