By John MassonJune 27, 2012
More than 50 Michigan Law summer starters gathered today for the first in a series of noontime gatherings to learn the finer points of cross-cultural lawyering.
The featured speaker: 2006 Michigan Law grad Denise Brogan-Kator, who runs the Rainbow Law Center in Ann Arbor along with partner Mary Kator.
For many of the students, the first order of business was figuring out exactly what cross-cultural lawyering means. Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Christine Gregory, who organized the talk, spoke of her own experience as a legal services lawyer, when one of her clients approached her and bluntly said that he preferred a Jewish lawyer. While this was an extreme example of how one’s social identity can affect the lawyer-client relationship, she said, it did illustrate for her that had the client never mentioned his bias, it is likely that she would not have known the underlying reasons for challenges they later encountered in her representation of him. Gregory went on to explain that clients aren’t the only ones with a built-in set of prejudices. Lawyers have them, too.
Transcending those biases is the key, and getting there was the goal of this gathering, together with two more get-togethers scheduled for later this summer.
Brogan-Kator talked about how important it was for her to determine some of the various aspects of her own identity, so she could better empathize with clients. She told students about her own path to law school, which she undertook at age 48. Before that, she was a married father of three daughters, a Navy veteran, and a successful CFO who learned about the sting of employment discrimination when her gender identity cost her a series of jobs.
The first CFO job began unraveling, she told the group, at a Halloween party held by her employer. Brogan-Kator's wife went as Fred Astaire; Brogan-Kator herself went as Ginger Rogers. "He's a little too good at this," surmised Brogan-Kator's boss, a religious conservative. A few weeks later, Brogan-Kator was fired. She learned there was little she could do under the law.
"I made a vow to myself," she said. "If I could ever do something that would prevent this from happening to someone else, I was going to do it."
Two more CFO jobs followed before she found a boss who knew of her identity and simply asked if she could do the job. She did, and eventually was able to send herself to law school and set herself up with her partner in an Ann Arbor practice that works hard to help protect the rights of the LGBTQ community.
When she considers all the different slivers of her identity, she told students, it helps her reach out more effectively to her clients. Sometimes she struggles against the middle-class, privileged white male she was raised as. Sometimes she reaches back for the Navy veteran in her background. Other times for the father of three girls, the youngest of whom just earned a PhD and is getting married later this week. Still other times she reaches for the lawyer, the CFO, or, as she phrased it, "the queer."
"Taking back that word—saying, 'I'm queer'—can be a very powerful thing," she told the group.
But whatever identity helps her connect with a client is helpful. And the work is fulfilling.
"The first case I ever took," she said, "was a young man who was having custody of his children challenged simply because he was gay."
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