Civil rights lawyers juggle mission, family life


Jennifer Klar, an attorney with Relman, Dane, & Colfax, in her Washington office. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)
January 29, 2012

When Jennifer Klar and other attorneys managed to free 12 people wrongly convicted of drug charges in Texas and get 35 others pardoned, she had been out of law school maybe a year — and her whole career path opened up to her.

“When I watched them walk out of prison, it was clear to me that I could spend my entire life doing civil rights work and never look back,” she recalled. Before long, she left the big law firm of Hogan Lovells, joined the American Civil Liberties Union and then in 2004, moved to the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.

Klar said her move into the thick of civil rights cases, as a litigator, allowed her to tackle “pretty egregious” injustices and mistreatment of blacks and others. “Lawyers are paid to take positions. I take positions because I believe there has been a violation of federal law … We have a goal of eliminating discrimination,” Klar said.

The Washington region is a magnet for civil rights lawyers in the public and private sectors. Civil rights careers are sprinkled throughout the Beltway, and according to a count on LinkedIn, some 211 people have civil rights in their job titles in the region. The Justice Department employs 393 civil rights attorneys and 48 paralegals, a spokesman said.

“I think there are jobs for people who want them, in D.C. especially,” said Klar, noting that most government agencies have civil rights offices and many lawyers and others work in civil rights areas for the Justice Department.

Many 20- and 30-somethings seem “really interested in these types of positions,” said Lisa Mottet, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s transgender civil rights project director. Over 10 years, she has worked with 40 legal interns; about seven of them continue to work in the LGBT civil rights movement, she said.

With an interest in public policy, Mottet chose to go to Georgetown University’s Law School in part to be near the center of national policies. When she graduated, she received a fellowship from Equal Justice Works that places new attorneys in nonprofits. “That paid for my salary for two years” at the task force, she said. After that, the group offered her a job so that her work on behalf of transgender rights could continue.

Heather Maria Johnson worked for Latham & Watkins in environmental law and litigation for several years, with mostly corporate clients, when she took a pro bono assignment with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty challenging ordinances that criminalize homelessness.

“I became engaged in the work the law center is doing,” she said, calling it “more vital, much more interesting.” As she began to plot how she could move into a nonprofit, civil rights type job, the woman who had been civil rights director for eight years left. “I just got lucky,” said Johnson, who started about six months ago.

The transition from a big law firm to a small nonprofit with a staff of 13 has required Johnson to work outside the legal realm by answering media calls and talking to activists across the country. The resources are far fewer but the need for help is great. “It’s just a lot of work for a small group,” she said, and not all cases can be taken.

The pay tends to be lower, too, compared with corporate lawyers or those in big law firms. But the civil rights lawyers say the rewards are greater; Mottet cites her involvement developing new nondiscrimination legislation for transgender individuals, and Klar cites the $10 million she and other attorneys won for African Americans denied water in Zanesville, Ohio.

“It is an incredibly amazing thing, and even decadent, to do what you love and care about in your job,” said Klar. “I think it’s rare.”

Despite the sense of accomplishment and meaning, burnout can be an issue because the work feels so important and the problems so big. After two years, Mottet came close to burnout, and made the decision to cut her work hours so she could sustain the job long-term. “I had to be literally in the office less,” she said, which she accomplished by starting to play soccer and for the Lady Lawyers Basketball League. She took cooking classes, and eventually married.

Kari Fiori-Walker, a civil rights paralegal at Cohen Millstein Sellers & Toll, has two pre-schoolers and a husband who works as a Georgetown University professor, so she limits her hours to 35 a week. She acts as the intake coordinator for people looking for legal help.

Often they aren’t right for the law firm that focuses on class action cases, but she takes a few minutes anyway to listen to them and offer them some other resources, including the National Employment Lawyers Association. She assists on the big cases, including the Wal-Mart vs. Dukes gender discrimination complaint last year.

Once her son came into the office with her and asked her what she did. “I told him I’m fighting for justice. When he got to work, he thought there were going to be super action heroes.”

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