Two years ago, Lauren DeBruicker gave up her career as a partner in a high-powered Philadelphia corporate law firm to be an assistant U.S. attorney. As a C6 quadriplegic, DeBruicker was part of the estimated one-third of 1% of law firm partners in the United States who have a disability. She had achieved the type of professional success people dream about, but found herself wanting something more meaningful.
“Lauren’s unique experiences as a practitioner, advocate and public interest champion prepared her perfectly for this role,” says longtime friend and colleague Charlene Keller Fullmer. “She reached the pinnacle of a private firm career with a demonstrated track record as an accomplished litigator. Her service on numerous boards has affected change and raised awareness. Now, each day, her lawyering in a variety of complex cases makes a difference in the lives of citizens of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.”
A true Philadelphian — from her upbringing, through her education and into her sports fandom — DeBruicker is a tireless advocate for all those around her, but her personal experiences have made her an especially empathetic voice for the region’s underserved disability community.
“Despite living a fairly privileged life, in which I have been blessed with support and resources, I still know what it’s like to be told to use the service entrance and eat in the back by the kitchen. I know what it’s like to go years without basic, preventative medical care because I can’t find a doctor with an exam table I can get on. I know what it’s like to go vote on Election Day and having to leave my polling place without having cast a real, non-provisional ballot because I couldn’t get to the voting booth,” DeBruicker says. “Now when I see something and say, ‘someone ought to do something about that,’ I can actually be that person. I have the tools and resources to bring about change.”
A Competitive Spirit
DeBruicker grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia before heading to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree. During her drive from Pennsylvania to California for the start of her sophomore year, she was paralyzed in a car accident when the person driving fell asleep at the wheel. From that September to the following March, she recovered and rehabbed, before going back to school to pick up where she left off.
By the time she finished undergrad, DeBruicker had identified a career in law as a good fit for her skills and the new realities facing her as a quad. “I knew I wanted to be good at what I thought good lawyers were good at doing — speaking clearly, writing persuasively, addressing issues from different perspectives,” she explains. “I figured I could go to law school and learn these things, and maybe then I could go into to the practice of law — because it was one thing I knew you could do sitting down — or maybe I would take those skills and do something else productive with them. Either way, it seemed like a good idea.”
DeBruicker moved back to the Mid-Atlantic region and enrolled at University of Pennsylvania’s law school. She graduated with a Juris Doctor in 1998 and began practicing at Duane Morris, a well-known firm in Philadelphia. DeBruicker had interned with the firm one summer while still in law school and says she expected the new job would last a few years. “Working in a big corporate law firm is very intense, but you learn a lot. There is a lot of ‘how much work can you get done, how many hours can you bill,’” she explains. “I knew that going in — I wanted that. I was ready to prove that I could do the work at that level and practice law at that level.”
Keller Fullmer worked with DeBruicker at Duane Morris and says her attention to detail and persistence helped her thrive early on as an associate. “In a matter of weeks, she became nothing short of an expert in a particular medical device — mechanics and all — after bringing a patent infringement and employment case against a major medical device distributor, all the while effectively managing client expectations and extracting the best evidence to secure a successful resolution.”
Whether in or out of the courtroom, DeBruicker impressed her colleagues. “Lauren packs a punch with an iron fist in a velvet glove,” says Fullmer. “With her steady and unassuming demeanor, she skillfully disarms opposing counsel to the benefit of the client. At first, she may be underestimated by adversaries, and that works to her advantage.”
DeBruicker developed some of that punch as a Division I lacrosse player. She still plays wheelchair rugby and Keller Fullmer, now assistant United States attorney and deputy chief of affirmative litigation, points to DeBruicker’s athletic roots as a source of her resolve (see The Other Court, below): “This mental mindset is fierce and fiery and is present on the field, courtroom, gym and board room. A true athlete, this competitive spirit and drive has enabled her to excel not only in wheelchair rugby but in all aspects of her life. It prepared her to tackle adversity and overcome obstacles.”
Instead of complaining about obstacles that arose because of her disability, DeBruicker looked for ways her disability benefitted her and then focused on how to maximize any advantages she might have. She found that being able to sit and speak at eye-level in front a jury, instead of lecturing them from a podium or pacing around the room, often gave her the upper hand. That was not the only advantage her disability lent her.
“I think people see that I clearly have enough on my plate in real life that I don’t have time to waste my time or theirs about something that isn’t important,” DeBruicker says. She focuses on facts and common sense. “Because if those two things aren’t on your side, you’re probably not going to get as far as you want to, regardless of what the law is or how righteous your position may be.”
Committed to Community
Despite having a full plate at work, DeBruicker has consistently found time to support causes she believes in. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed her to the Philadelphia Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities in 2016 and reappointed her in 2018. In that role, she acts as a resource for the city’s administration on how policies impact the disability community, and she brings issues that are affecting the disability community to the administration. Philadelphia’s large disabled population ranks among those with the highest poverty levels in the nation, making the commission’s job even more crucial.
According to DeBruicker, “Many cities have offices of disability services or other offshoots. Philadelphia’s is so small compared to other [large cities] where they have multiple people on staff. The commission feels the importance to volunteer and help out where they can.”
DeBruicker’s commitment to people with disabilities is also visible through her involvement with Inglis House, a local organization founded in 1877 that serves people with physical disabilities. Inglis broke ground on its first accessible complex in the 1970s and has been working to expand the availability of accessible housing, particularly for people with limited or low income in the Philadelphia area. Several friends encouraged DeBruicker to join the board, and she agreed after getting a better understanding of Inglis’ mission and goals.
“I learned that [Inglis] wasn’t just a nursing home with the sort of negative implications that come with it, especially for someone within the disability community,” she says. “They not only provided 24-hour care for people who chose or felt more comfortable in that environment but were also working to develop affordable wheelchair accessible housing and were active in the adaptive technology space.”
Additionally, Inglis champions technology as a means for people with complex needs to live more independently in the community. “Those were two exciting initiatives that struck a chord with me,” says DeBruicker. She became the first Inglis board chair to have a physical disability and has been committed to creating the “most rewarding environment for people who do live at Inglis House.”
After eight years, her time on the board will come to an end this year. Fellow Inglis board member Won Shin has nothing but praise for her leadership and her unique point of view. “She understood, and continues to understand at the highest levels, what it means to advocate for someone,” says Shin, a fellow quad and friend who is the executive director at the Philadelphia office of the global business management firm, Ernst & Young. “Take those skills and combine them with her superior intellect, gracious and confident communication style, and the fact that [she] uses a wheelchair, and you have a board chair that impeccably represented Inglis and those we serve every day.”
The People’s Work
After 18 years at Duane Morris, DeBruicker decided she was ready for a new challenge, one that combined her interest in community service with her legal work. Working as a member of the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office fit the bill. She started in December 2016.
As a lawyer for the United States and its citizens, DeBruicker enforces all civil laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and represents the U.S. in other proceedings. She also ensures people who are billing the government do so in accordance with the law. “I feel like I’m doing more of the people’s work,” she says. “It’s doing right by the taxpayers. It’s making sure that what the law promises in rights and access is actually what people experience on the ground.”
Not only does she feel strongly about her work, but others within the office do too. It’s the right combination of fit and focus. One of her most successful projects to date involved working with Philadelphia restaurants to implement compliance programs and resolve violations of access issues under the ADA.
While the skills to be a strong lawyer and advocate may have come naturally to DeBruicker, the demands of her work have not always been easy. She says a pressure sore forced her to realize she could do anything, but not everything.
“I came out of the gate like, ‘Look I can do anything anyone else does,’” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to advocate for yourself, but if you think about not asking for yourself and instead asking for the benefit of the next person to come along, you can make it easier for [someone else] down the line.”
Reflecting on the last two years, DeBruicker feels she made the right choice. “This feels like a broader purpose, not just pushing corporate money around. I’m in a position to do some good.”
As a former high school and college athlete, DeBruicker now gets her hits in playing wheelchair rugby for the Magee Eagles. She has been playing for almost 10 years, but feels like it’s a new part of her life. “I’m still not very good at it. I should probably know a hell of a lot more of what I’m doing by now,” she jokes.
While she loves the exercise and competition, the camaraderie that comes with being around people who have similar experiences is hard to beat. “It’s nice to be around people that get all the jokes — sort of the same gallows humor,” she says. Though there is one thing that reigns supreme: “At the end of a long day of depositions to go and smash into things is pretty therapeutic.”