Q. Please share with us your path to DePaul Law and the legal profession?
I attended Michigan State University for undergraduate and I was not sure what exactly I wanted to do. I thought about becoming a doctor, so I took a few courses in chemistry and math and I was struggling. I then took a class in political science and received an “A”. My professor stated a paper I wrote for his class was strong enough to be published and encouraged me to consider attending law school.
I always have enjoyed the performing arts as well. However, it was the mid-1980s, and I thought it would be more practical to become a lawyer than becoming an actor. As for DePaul Law, I loved the idea of coming to Chicago. Chicago has all the advantages of New York City without the disadvantages. When I came to visit DePaul, I fell in love with DePaul’s campus and the Lincoln Park community. At the law school, I felt a real family connection. Finally, DePaul’s Vincentian mission of service spoke to me and I came to law school with the intent of working in legal aid.
Q. What were some of your notable experiences at DePaul Law (classes, professors, student organizations, etc.)?
My three favorite professors standout as the highlight of my DePaul Law experience. Emeritus Vincent de Paul Professor of Law, Jeff Shaman, was my constitutional law teacher. Professor Shaman made me fall in love with the constitution. Emeritus Professor of Law, Len Cavise, was my trial advocacy professor and his class had a profound impact on me. Professor Cavise inspired me and made me realize that I wanted to become a trial lawyer. It was in his trial advocacy class that I first saw how a trial attorney combines the intellect and the rigor of the law with the performance elements of the performing arts. Finally, Emeritus Distinguished Research Professor of Law, Cherif Bassiouni, and his courses on international human rights law struck a chord. I was the president of the International Law Society during my final year of law school and was a member of the International Law Moot Court Competition Team as well.
The relationships I developed in my second and third year of law school were also notable. The first year of law school was difficult, but once I completed the core courses, the final two years were much more enjoyable. I appreciated my 2L and 3L seminar classes. In the seminar classes, I worried less about grades and instead I embraced the opportunity to learn the law. I found the law to be interesting and saw how it interfaces with every aspect of our lives. And, in learning how society interacts with the law, I came to appreciate my professors and the community at the law school.
Q: Please take us through your career and how you ended up where you are now?
When I graduated from DePaul Law in 1987, the job market was tight. At the time, I was working for the Legal Aid Society of Chicago. I wanted to be a legal aid lawyer. However, I was making $8 an hour and the federal government was in a hiring freeze. I found it difficult to see a future working in legal aid. Therefore, I decided to apply at several different law firms and ended up working for a small litigation firm. It was at this firm that I really learned how to be a litigator. The position gave me a chance to put into practice many of the lessons I had learned from Professor Cavise and his trial advocacy class.
In 1991, I decided to start my own firm. Over the years, it has been a steady march to build my practice to where it is today. In the beginning, I was working on small defense cases, going to court to represent clients accused of prostitution and traffic violations. I took whatever cases would come through the door and did a lot of referral work with other attorneys. Slowly, I was able to add personal injury cases, which led to larger cases and greater opportunities.
In the past ten years, I have become very involved in foster care negligence cases. These cases really speak to my heart. My involvement in foster care cases stemmed from a case that was referred to me from another attorney who was not sure if anything could come from it. The case revolved around a couple that brought in a foster care child that ended up harming the other children in their home. We found that the for-profit foster agency knew that this child had a history of violence and sexual abuse. I went ahead and filed the case. It was very technical, as it did not follow the normal avenue of a negligence case. I was initially dismissed out-of-court, but keep refiling and eventually figured out how to bring the case, as a quasi-contract, quasi-tort case. With that change made, we ended up prevailing. From this experience, I begin to write articles and speak to different bar associations around the country helping to educate attorneys on how to proceed with similar foster care cases.
Since then, I have been litigating foster care negligence cases across the United States. I litigate Section 1983 cases under the 14th Amendment, arguing the constitutional rights of a child to be free from harm. In a precedent setting case that I brought before the U.S 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court determined that children placed in a foster care agency have the right to be free and to be safe. I believe this was a very important ruling recognizing a foster child’s rights under the constitution.
Q: Beyond the courtroom, you are a successful playwright. Tell us more about your writing career and how that dovetails with being a legal advocate?
I go back to my time at Michigan State when I was toying between writing/acting classes and my pre-law classes. While I took what I believed to be the more practical route, I still had this gnawing desire to be a writer and a performer. Part of being a good trial lawyer is the ability to be a performer, especially in front of the jury. As a litigator, you are the director, the writer, and the storyteller.
While I was working as a young attorney, I always wrote on the side and was a board member for a local Chicago theater. One day, I wrote a play and showed it to the head of the theater. A week later, he called me back asking one question. May I direct it? The play was Haram Iran.
Haram Iran is a work about two teenage boys who were hanged in Iran for allegedly being gay. The play brought together my interest in human rights, international law, and writing. Haram Iran went on to have great success. The play received a GLAAD nomination and was showed in theaters in London, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
After the success of Haram Iran, I went back to school and received my Masters in Fine Arts. All of the work that I have produced has a social message and much of it comes from my experience with different cases. I wrote the film Foster Boy, based on three foster care negligence cases that I have had. I was able to put my legal knowledge into the writing. In addition to writing Foster Boy, I also served as the film’s legal advisor. I found myself using my DePaul Law education working with Matthew Modine and Louis Gossett, Jr. as I advised them on how a lawyer and a judge would react to different courtroom situations. Being on the set of Foster Boy and working with these wonderful actors was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Q: What advice do you have for today’s law students?
Do not give up and do not worry about your current predicament. In 1987, everybody was telling us as law students that there were too many lawyers and you are never going to find a job. Do not worry about your first job and do not worry about the money. I know that is a difficult message to share. However, think of your first two years after graduating law school as your greatest learning opportunity. If you put your heart into honing your craft, things will fall into place. Lawyers are lucky, as the business is always changing. Older lawyers will always need young smart attorneys, because the law is always changing.
The law is not always an easy profession, but it is a rewarding profession. Last Christmas, I received a holiday card from a client’s family that I represented nearly twenty years ago. The client was a young girl that had suffered a brain injury from a birth injury. She was ten when I received the case and one of the damages contested was whether she could go to college or not. Part of the settlement we received was money set aside for her to attend college. Inside the card was a picture of the young women and her family at her college graduation. The law can be a lucrative profession, but at the end of the day, the reward as an attorney is success for your clients.
Q: You are involved with a number of different community organizations. Tell us more about your volunteer activities?
My parents instilled service as an important aspect of my life. When I came to DePaul, the law school community and especially my professors reinforced the idea of service to others. They taught me that law school is not just about learning the law; it is learning that we, as future attorneys, have a civic responsibility to be engaged with our community.
My personal belief is that I have an obligation to give back. I have found that when you can use your profession in the service of others, there are intangible benefits that help you as an individual. Moreover, in doing service, I found it comes back. I volunteered with legal aid for many years and picked-up clients from it. It was not my intended purpose, but it happened. I wanted to expose the foster care system and wrote Foster Boy, and it has only helped my business. I believe there is a double bottom-line, and if you put yourself out there and you serve, there is a positive karmic response.
One of the organizations that I am closely involved with is First Star. First Star is a not-for-profit that works with foster teens assisting them in obtaining higher education. Many of these kids have never been outside their neighborhoods, let alone on a college campus. To see these foster teens blossom when given an opportunity to succeed provides me with great joy.
I am also passionate for advocating for changes in the law. I have worked with Illinois State Senator Sara Feigenholtz on altering some of the laws regarding foster care in our state. One of the issues that always bothered me and that I helped to successfully change is when a foster child would have to move homes. The children were not provided with a suitcase to do so. In many instances, a foster child would have to use garbage bags to move their belongings. When a child is only given a garbage bag to move their personal items, that action is telling the child that their belongings are garbage and the child then feels like garbage.
The service that I have been able to provide during my career is what I take pride in and will remember. Watching my First Star teens receive their college acceptance letters, providing suitcases for foster care children, ensuring that clients can fulfill their dreams, these are just a few of the memories that I will fondly reflect back on when my career is complete.