Journalist reflects on road less traveled

By Gail Appleson

Just after the Senate confirmed Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in August 1993, I was lucky enough to land an interview with her at the American Bar Association annual meeting.

At the time, I was working as the national legal correspondent for Reuters and will never forget how Ginsburg responded when asked to describe her feelings at that important moment in her life.

She referred to the 1992 movie “Orlando” in which a young nobleman is commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to always stay young. The nobleman obeys her command by changing lives – and sometimes his sex — through several centuries of British history. The movie shows how he is treated differently in his various reincarnations.

Ginsburg – who at one time was unable to get a job as a lawyer because she is a woman — told me that like Orlando, she was the same person as before, but now she was being treated so very differently.

Her comments came to mind as I walked into an awards luncheon at the 2012 American Bar Association (ABA) annual meeting in August. As a legal journalist, I had gone to a number of these meetings over the years and was frequently courted by ABA presidents and officials who wanted to get quoted in stories running on Reuters’ global wire. This time was different, though. No longer a news reporter, I attended the luncheon as a colleague of Armstrong Teasdale partner Amy Lorenz-Moser, who was receiving the ABA Pro Bono Publico award for her tireless work on behalf of abused women. My duties as an editor and writer at the law firm include nominating lawyers for recognitions. I had helped one of Lorenz-Moser’s professors compile the Pro Bono Publico submission.

Several former ABA presidents and officials, some of whom I had interviewed a number of times over the years, walked right past me in the ballroom. There wasn’t even a flicker of recognition. I’m the same person, but without my press identification, I had become painfully invisible.

There was a time when I never would have considered giving up those credentials. I loved being a journalist in Manhattan where I covered high-profile trials and legal issues of national importance. But due to family matters, I moved here in 2005 and became a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s business section. But the Post, like many other papers across the country, rapidly began to decline with rounds of layoffs and buyouts targeting seasoned journalists. Soon my many years of experience became a detriment rather than an asset.

Jewish Light Editor Ellen Futterman, with whom I once worked at the Post-Dispatch, described the situation in her Aug. 1 News & Schmooze column, “Post-mortem.” As she explained, we saw what was happening at the paper and chose to leave the profession that is “in our blood.”  

What we’ve learned is that sometimes G-d really does work in strange and wonderful ways. And sometimes the very separation that we’ve dreaded turns into a blessing. New beginnings, we’ve both found, can bring opportunities for creativity, growth and personal satisfaction.

That point was certainly driven home during the ABA awards program. Among the pro bono honorees was Howard Goffen, a Jewish lawyer in his seventies who had once been the managing attorney of a Chicago law firm. In 2004, after a 45-year career as a trial attorney, he retired. Goffen said his retirement has turned into a gift because he’s dedicated himself to volunteering at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago that serves low-income individuals and senior citizens. Often faced with areas of law that he never practiced, he chose to study to gain the necessary knowledge to help his clients. In 2008, as part of those efforts, he became qualified to practice before federal bankruptcy courts.

“I believe that giving back to my profession as a pro bono counsel during retirement years has added greater meaning and purpose to my life,” he said in his award recipient statement. “I recognize with humility, and participate fully in the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, ‘repairing the world’.”  

Lorenz-Moser is also dedicated to righting the world’s wrongs. Her passion for helping abused women started when she was an undergraduate and went to the aid of a college cafeteria worker who was being beaten at work. In law school, she volunteered at a domestic violence clinic and in 2010, while in private practice, won a long running pro bono battle for the release of two women who had spent more than 30 years in prison for killing their abusive husbands. The women had been convicted at a time when domestic abuse was poorly understood and courts excluded evidence of self-defense.

Sitting next to Lorenz-Moser during the luncheon, I understood that I, too, had been given a gift in my new life by having the opportunity to tell the story of her dedication and determination.

And as Lorenz-Moser hugged me at the end of the ceremony, something else very important happened.

I realized that I was not invisible at all.

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis.