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Championing Civil Rights: Q&A with Lynn Nakamoto

Lynn Nakamoto, managing shareholder of Markowitz, Herbold, Glade & Mehlhaf, P.C., concentrates her practice on employment law and civil appeals. She counsels both employees and employers, and has successfully handled hundreds of employment disputes. Her cases often involve claims for sexual harassment, employee benefits, or retaliation. Nakamoto frequently handles civil rights claims, including claims based on age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, and race discrimination.

In 2007, Nakamoto garnered the John Grigsby-Jim Vegher Investments in Dignity Award, which recognizes significant contribution of time and energy to champion Equity Foundation’s mission to build communities that embrace the dignity and worth of all people. Equity Foundation is the state’s only community foundation focused primarily on promoting equality for the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Questioning (GLBTQ) community.

Nakamoto serves as cooperating counsel for the ACLU in Oregon and is a board member for the Q Center, an emerging Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Questioning (LGBTQ) community center in Portland. She was honored by Basic Rights Oregon for her work on Tanner v. OHSU.

In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Nakamoto talks about civil rights work and career lessons learned.

How are you engaged in promoting minorities in the legal profession? When I first moved here in 1987, I was really surprised at the lack of attorneys of color in the bar. It has since improved. There are more attorneys of color practicing in Oregon now. Back then, attorneys in civil practice who are people of color made up such a small community. We all knew of each other, or knew each other personally.

Promoting minorities in the legal profession is important on a number of levels. On a personal level, having more people of color working in the legal system makes one feel more comfortable as a person of color. It helps to see other people who look like you, and be among colleagues who are racial minorities. For litigants, I think it makes a difference to see people in the courts that look like them. Having judges or counsel that look like you tends to create a difference in terms of one’s confidence level in the justice system.

I was a participant in helping to start the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association. That grew out of this need for a sense of community among a coalition of lawyers of color: Asian-American, Native American, Latino, and African-American. Earlier on, I had significant involvement in the organization. I continue to be a member, and the organization has evolved and grown since its early days.

How are you involved with the ACLU? I’m a cooperating attorney for the ACLU, and a former board member. I was fortunate to help out with the Tanner case, which involved same-sex couples from OHSU whose partners were unable to get employment benefits on the same basis that spouses were getting them. There was a legal dispute about whether there was an obligation to provide same benefits to domestic partners.

My involvement, on behalf of the ACLU, was writing “friend-of-the-court” briefs in the trial court and court of appeals. “Friend-of-the-court” briefs typically are provided on points that parties in the case may not have enough time to emphasize. The briefs provided the court with additional arguments in support of one party or the other. Clearly, I weighed in on the plaintiffs’ side. We were able to complete a brief that looked at underlying, factual background that is external to the immediate dispute between the parties. For example, cost related to domestic partner benefits, burdens to employers, or lack thereof, etc.

What is the personal significance of receiving the Dignity Award from the Equity Foundation? My partner and I were very honored to receive the award, which recognized contributions to the community and promoting human dignity and equal opportunity.

What are some of the most important lessons learned in your career? There are a lot of lessons that one learns as a lawyer, as a professional. Doing good work. Doing the right thing for the right reason. Being honest. A lot of the things that you learned in kindergarten and that you should carry through in your profession and in your work.

What’s the best professional advice you ever received? Check things out for yourself, and make your own judgments. This advice helps on a day-to-day basis, both in doing cases and managing people

What aspect of working with civil rights issues do you find most fulfilling? I really enjoy civil rights work because I view the issues as so important. Systemically, it’s important that people recognize that individuals should be treated equally on the job and in contracts without regard to race, sex or other irrelevant characteristics. Doing these kinds of cases helps to enforce the laws. When doing plaintiff-side work, one gets an opportunity to be of assistance in cases where mistakes were made.

Summer 2008 Colors of Influence || Share on Facebook



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