I became paralyzed on Aug. 13, 2013. There was nothing overly traumatic about it. I had gone in for a major spine surgery with an amazing neurosurgeon. We anticipated that I would be up walking the next day, but when I woke up from the eight-hour surgery, I discovered that I was paralyzed. One of my earliest concerns after that discovery was about what would happen to my law practice.
Would I still be able to do my job?
Perry Mason in Training
My path to law school was a long one. I didn’t grow up knowing that I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t go to college knowing that either. It wasn’t until I sat in one of my first classes on my first day of law school that I knew that this was where I belonged.
It was during law school that my back started to cause some serious problems. I was born with a tumor on my spine, so back problems were nothing new to me. I had my first spine surgery at 18 months and my first major surgery at 10 years old. When I was 10, the doctors removed most of the tumor, which was the size of a grapefruit, and preserved my ability to walk and saved my bladder function. So while my back was always an issue, it was never a prominent problem.
But during law school things changed. I started needing to use a cane to walk. I hated that and tried to avoid it at all costs. I hated that I couldn’t wear heels. I wanted to look cute like all the other female attorneys in their smart suits and fancy shoes. What I wouldn’t give to go back to having those be my biggest worries!
Out of law school I knew I wanted to work as a defense attorney, and I ended up being hired by one of the area’s best, known as “the Perry Mason of Palm Springs.” I only worked for him for about a year, but he taught me so much, including how to have confidence in myself. Maybe I needed a cane, but that didn’t affect my intellect or ability to provide a rigorous defense for our clients.
Eventually, I struck out on my own. Only one client gave me a hard time about the cane. He was a young man who was accused of many crimes, including gang allegations. He was in custody, so he hadn’t seen me in person prior to his family retaining me. When I went to see him, he looked at me and said, “What’s with the stick?” I gestured to my cane and said, “Oh this? I use it to give me street cred. You don’t think it works?” We both laughed, and it was never an issue after that.
From Cane to Chair
When I became paralyzed, I didn’t know what to expect. I was hospitalized for six weeks, during which time I had another surgery and about four weeks of rehabilitation. I hadn’t expected to be in the hospital for more than a few days, so I hadn’t told many of my clients. They kept calling me and emailing me about their cases and I kept responding, without mentioning that I was in the hospital. My job is to keep my clients calm, to take the burden off their shoulders and to find solutions to their cases. They didn’t need to know that I was sitting in a hospital room and not in my office.
Thanks to a great support team, I only lost one client while I was in the hospital. His case was moving quickly before I was hospitalized, and we were approaching trial. My being in the hospital would have been a setback to his case, so I had a duty to notify his family. He was incarcerated so I could not contact him directly. They chose to seek representation with a different attorney to keep the case progressing. I never blamed them for making that decision.
About eight weeks after becoming paralyzed — only two weeks after I returned home from the hospital — I was back in court. Was that fast? Yes. But I didn’t want to sit around the house. I wanted to get back into my normal routine as early as possible. Plus, I didn’t really have the option to not go back to court; my clients’ freedom was still at risk. Focusing on their needs motivated me to learn how to adapt quickly.
I was so nervous on my first day back in court. It felt like it had been an eternity. I didn’t know what people would think. I didn’t know what my clients would think. Would they think I was incapable now that I was in a wheelchair? I knew rationally that the two shouldn’t be connected, but we do not live in a perfect society. I had mixed reactions from other lawyers: Some acted like they didn’t notice the wheelchair, some seemed very concerned, but most people just wanted to make sure I was OK.
I was still so new in my recovery that I was not yet fully independent. I had a caregiver drive me to court and help me. It felt weird to me that, on the one hand I was in charge of people’s freedom, but on the other hand, I needed help even getting to court. My assistant became my caregiver and drove me to court for almost a full year. I didn’t believe that the paralysis was permanent, so I refused to get hand controls or a lightweight wheelchair. Almost exactly one year post-injury I bought hand controls for my car and received my lightweight chair, so I could be fully independent and not need anyone to help me get to and from court or my office.
In my chair I didn’t have the insecurities I had when I used the cane. Having already learned to deal with not wearing heels and other superficial things helped. When I was still walking, I had amassed a collection of really cute and brightly colored oxford shoes. I would wear conservative, dark suits paired with my bright shoes, which helped me to feel stylish. Now, when I take cases in downtown Los Angeles, I normally take the Metro and a bus transfer to one of the courts. One time, as I was waiting for the bus transfer, a different bus driver actually pulled over, opened her door and called out to me that she loved my shoes. It was nice to be noticed for my fashion choices, rather than my wheelchair.
Being a lawyer in a wheelchair versus being a lawyer with a cane has taught me many things. Near the top of the list is how inaccessible many courtrooms are. They are crowded with people, briefcases and chairs. It is hard for me to squeeze through places to check in with a clerk or to go speak with my client or the district attorney. Many of the older courthouses have desks that are so high that even if I do make it to the clerk to check in, they can’t see me until I either say something — and even then, they sometimes don’t hear me — or until the courtroom deputy or another lawyer gets their attention for me. I was in a courtroom in an older courthouse and the judge actually came down off the bench to where I was to apologize for how inaccessible her courtroom was. Her courtroom deputy had to move chairs around for me to even get through to my spot at the counsel table, and even then it was a tight squeeze. I was embarrassed that the judge would come down to apologize to me, as if she had anything to do with the design of the room. But apparently her father had recently become a wheelchair user, and she was learning how inaccessible many places were.
Many of the biggest obstacles I face at the courthouse are the same issues that wheelchair users face every day: a lack of accessible parking, overcrowded elevators, rude people. Worse than the courthouses are the jails. When I need to visit clients in jails, many of the “accessible” attorney booths are not very accessible.
I once went to visit a female client accused of embezzlement. She knew that I was a wheelchair user, so there was no surprise there for her. The deputies said the booth was accessible, but I was barely able to squeeze in. The way the room was situated, there was no room for me to turn my chair to face her. I was able to transfer to a metal stool that was bolted into the floor in the center of the booth. When I was done, I transferred back to my chair, but I had to reach behind me to open the heavy door. I was trying to maneuver to reach the door and also be able to open it, and I got wedged in. The guard called on the phone in the booth to tell me that my time was up. However, the phone was on the wall next to the door and about five feet off the ground. I couldn’t even reach the phone to tell him I was stuck. While my client watched (who knows what she was thinking?), I struggled to get free from the attorney booth. Several minutes and a few curse words later, I finally managed to make it out of there. When the guard very angrily asked why I didn’t answer the phone and told me I was late leaving the booth, I even more angrily told him about my struggle. I then went and called the head of the jail, who was very apologetic and promised that the booth would be remodeled. They did actually widen the booth so I am now able to visit clients there.
The New Reality
I was worried about the effect of being seated constantly during trial. I hate that I am not able to stand when addressing the court, as that is a sign of respect. I hate that I cannot stand to salute the flag in the courtrooms where that happens. But, one does not need to stand to be respectful. Most judges adapt along with me, and instead of having sidebars at the bench, which is usually at least a foot over my head, we all go to the hallway to talk.
As the saying goes, “where there is a will, there is a way!” Instead of standing at a podium, I place it next to me and place my papers on it while questioning witnesses or talking to the jury. My office is basically paper-free, and I have all files stored electronically, so I do not need to lug many things to the courthouse with me. I have a cup holder on my chair that I use to hold my clicker when doing opening or closing statements.
My investigator loves to point out that jurors are usually fascinated watching how easily I move around. Plus, being in a wheelchair is almost an advantage in one regard: Jurors project “vulnerability” onto me because of the wheelchair, but they see that I am not afraid of my clients and conclude that maybe they shouldn’t be afraid of them either. This is especially true in assault, robbery or gang-related cases.
For the most part, other lawyers are very compassionate and help me when needed, but one time when I returned to the courtroom for a forgotten item, I came across an ugly scene. Another female attorney, sitting in a rolling desk chair, said to another attorney, “If I’m seated in this chair on wheels, do I get special permissions too?” When she noticed that I was right there, she immediately turned red and stammered,
“I am just kidding.” I am the first to use humor as a tool to protect myself, and admittedly have made a lot of jokes about just wanting a seat in the courtroom, but this was not funny.
I didn’t say anything because I was so caught off guard that I didn’t know what to say. It hurt my feelings, of course. But it was just so ignorant. I should have told her that I would gladly trade places with her and have to lean over the rail to talk to my clients rather than be in my wheelchair.
What I have gone through on this journey has added a level of patience and compassion, which has benefitted me in the way I handle my cases and clients. And while it definitely would be easier if I didn’t have a disability, I love my job and am grateful every single day that I am able to do it.