“I don’t think we have ever faced a point when all, and I do mean all, of our issues seem to be under attack at once,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women's Law Center. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It started with a kind of Trump-era emergency alert.

"Under the Trump Administration, we are already seeing a serious reduction in federal civil rights enforcement," read the email sent to lawyers and legal organizations nationwide this summer. "Simultaneously, reports indicate that new waves of gender-based hostility and harassment . . . have increased in schools and workplaces across the country."

In months since the warning, scores of attorneys have joined forces to beat back what they say is a wave of threats to legal protections for women, spurred by President Trump's election.

The email blast came from the National Women's Law Center and represents the organization's first step in building a rapid-response legal collective prepared to take on the women's rights cases that it fears the administration will ignore or inspire.

They've dubbed the effort the Legal Network for Gender Equity.

Organizers point to decisions the Trump administration has made that could curb advancements for women, including allowing more employers to opt out of covering birth control in workplace insurance plans and suspending an Obama administration effort to shrink the gender wage gap. In the course of one term, the changes could shift what the federal government is willing to do in women's interests and what companies, individuals and institutions feel emboldened to try, NWLC leaders said.

Lawyer Debra Katz, right, speaks to Fatima Goss Graves. “When the election happened, I think there was an immediate sense of urgency,” Katz said. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

"When the election happened, I think there was an immediate sense of urgency," said Debra Katz, a lawyer with a résumé full of litigation related to whistleblower cases, sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.

Katz is one of 216 lawyers in 32 states involved in the legal network. Organizers hope to recruit more.

"This — what we are in the midst of right now — is absolutely the kind of atmosphere where dangerous retreats can happen, serious gains can be lost," Katz said. 

The network of lawyers has begun assessing 43 cases, including a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against Walmart. Many of the cases come from people who contact the Washington-based NWLC, which has the capacity to take on just two cases a year without the network.

With lawyers on board who can pursue cases in most states, the emails and conference calls organized by the center have all but declared legal war.

"I think we are very much at the point of wondering what could possibly be next," said Fatima Goss Graves, who in July became president and chief executive of NWLC. She also is the first black woman to lead the 45-year-old organization. "I don't think we have ever faced a point when all, and I do mean all, of our issues seem to be under attack at once."

Right here, right now

Kassandra Lawrence was desperate.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department each had investigated the sheriff's deputy's claim of pregnancy discrimination against her employer and determined in April that — while her case had merit — neither agency would bring a legal case.

Lawrence couldn't afford the cost of a private attorney upfront. So, in an effort to find an alternative, she did an online search for "pregnancy discrimination" and "Ivanka Trump" — the only high-profile person she knew who was talking about family-leave issues. The search led her to a story that mentioned the NWLC.

"I just knew that what happened to me wasn't right and shouldn't happen to anyone else," Lawrence said. "It certainly didn't seem right that you need to be rich, or somehow have a lot of extra money for a lawyer to even get to court."

The problems had started when Lawrence delivered her second child. She had been working for the Stafford County, Va., sheriff's office for eight years when she became pregnant again. The pregnancy went smoothly, but the delivery did not. Lawrence lost a lot of blood during a complicated Caesarean section.

In the middle of her recovery, the sheriff's department told Lawrence she needed to report to work on a specific date or reapply for a job, according to her lawsuit. She had 12 weeks' leave, no more, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and she had already taken "too much" time off. All of it was essentially regarded as optional by a department official who said "women chose to have children," the lawsuit says. She should have planned things in a way that wasn't so disruptive.

The sheriff's office and Stafford County, both named in Lawrence's suit, declined to comment.

Lawrence needed her job, and she liked it. She still does. So she went back to work in pain and with scar tissue wrapped around some of her organs. Lawrence put off surgery to remove it because she knew how it would be received at work.

When she took time off for carpel tunnel surgery on her weapon hand — necessary to do her job — department officials accused her of medical malingering, she said, using leave time to be with her kids. 

That's when she saw it: a memo from the sheriff asking employees to donate leave time to a colleague undergoing cancer treatment. The sheriff asserted that, while the man had exhausted his 12 weeks of leave, he deserved the department's help, Lawrence said. 

"I had already, at this point, had a lot of strange conversations, had a lot of things said to me about women being such an unfair burden on the department," Lawrence said. "First, you question yourself. You do. Then, like most people who need their jobs, you [get] angry. You get scared. But that memo, I just couldn't believe that they'd put this attitude in a memo, clear as day."

NWLC connected her with Phillis Rambsy, a lawyer in the network. Rambsy said their first conversation lasted more than an hour.

"She was determined but, unfortunately, living and working in a time and in a place where her rights don't appear to have been recognized," Rambsy said. "The sad thing is that place is here. That time is right now."

Rambsy and her law partner, Tom Spiggle, decided to take Lawrence's case on contingency, with payment due if the lawyers win the case or secure a settlement. Many lawyers in the network plan to take cases the same way. NWLC will not cover their costs nor will it share in any settlements or court-ordered payouts.

Faith in the courts

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has announced a set of decisions that have roiled women's rights advocates.

On Aug. 30, the White House Office of Management and Budget put on hold a rule that would have required employers with 100 workers or more to share with the EEOC information about the race, ethnicity and gender of employees. Supporters said the rule, set to take effect in 2018, would all but force companies to correct pervasive gender and racial pay disparities.

The administration said the rule would impose too big a burden on employers. Ivanka Trump, who has positioned herself as an advocate for gender equity issues in the administration, gave the delay her seal of approval.

Then last month, the administration took aim at another Obama administration policy when the Education Department rescinded federal guidance on how colleges and universities should deal with sexual assault on campus and  announced an interim plan. The move came after an official in charge of the Education Department's civil rights division told the New York Times in July that 90 percent of sexual assault allegations on campus are illegitimate. The official later apologized for her comments, calling them "flippant." 

And this month, the administration expanded the number of companies that can opt out of an Affordable Care Act provision requiring employer insurance to cover birth control.

"Our greatest concerns have begun to turn into realities," Graves said. "We have little choice but to put out faith in the courts."

Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the Trump administration's approach to policies affecting women continues a familiar pattern in history. Some administrations have pushed to expand legal equity while others pulled the country toward the status quo, said Goldberg, who also leads Columbia's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.

In those periods of retrenchment, strategic partnerships between nonprofit groups and lawyers in private practice are a little-recognized way many civil rights gains have been made. 

"People think about the country as this place where the government and the vast majority of citizens have always been these ferocious defenders of fairness and equality," Goldberg said. "The truth is a little messier than that."