Lawyers have a tremendous opportunity to bring about positive change in the lives of underprivileged and marginalized people.
For the past nine years, S. Kerene Moore has provided fierce advocacy for members of many vulnerable groups to include crime victims, undocumented immigrants, disabled persons, LGBT community members, and indviduals from low income households.
Moore was recognized for her exemplary work by the National LGBT Bar Association in June as one of the country’s Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40.
“I’m usually too busy working or thinking about the next battle to think too much about my work. Having my colleagues recognize the significance of what I do, especially in an area that’s really personal to me, definitely makes a difference. It’s humbling and motivating at the same time. It lets me know that I’m on the right career path,” she said.
As staff attorney for Legal Services of South Central Michigan’s Washtenaw County Office, Moore has distinguished herself in the field and demonstrates a profound commitment to LGBT equality, for which she was honored at the Lavender Law Conference and Career Fair on Aug. 5 in Washington, D.C.
Moore, a graduate of the University of Michigan, earned her bachelor’s with distinction and honors prior to obtaining her Juris Doctor from the UM Law School. In her practice, initially funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, Moore has used her expertise in family law, immigration, housing, consumer, and administrative law matters to help hundreds of clients each year. This includes helping 48 crime victims obtain legal immigration status in the U.S., and providing support for more than 100 survivors of domestic violence, divorce and custody cases.
“As an attorney in my courtroom, Kerene demonstrates tremendous expertise, has superior legal research skills, and takes time to educate judges on the complexities surrounding LGBT legal issues,” Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Carol Kuhnke wrote in a letter supporting Moore’s nomination for the award.
“Her persistent drive has provided a path for litigants who are systematically barred from accessing the justice system.”
Prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, Moore was one of the first attorney’s on the ground in Michigan fighting judges for divorce, custody, and visitation orders for LGBT families.
Moore is also co-chair of the Washtenaw County Bar Association’s LGBT Rights Section, one of Equality Michigan’s board of directors, and was recently appointed to the City of Ann Arbor’s Human Rights Commission.
“Kerene is a tenacious, hard-working, visionary attorney, who is generous with her time and talents to make a positive difference in the lives of others,” ACLU LGBT Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan said.
The Know Your Rights Project
Many LGBT families, as a result of discriminatory laws, polices and practices, live below the poverty level and are in need of legal services that address their unique needs.
“Most people don’t know if the office they walk into is a safe space to come out and explain what is going on. They don’t disclose that they are LGBT or that they think something is going on related to that. This can negatively impact the attorney-client relationship,” Moore said.
As a result, she said many LGBT people do not follow through with the legal process or assume there is nothing they can do about their problem.
In an effort to change that, Moore developed a free legal clinic at the Jim Toy Community Center in Ann Arbor, an LGBT resource center where she is the vice president. The Know Your Rights Project is a collaborative work of the JTTC, the Outlaws of the UM Law School, LSSCM and local volunteer attorneys. It is also her most notable accomplishment in the past year.
“The law is absolutely confusing,” Moore said. “Every court room is different. Judges have a lot of power. There are so many tedious reasons a judge can dismiss or not hear a case, but it’s harder to be dismissive or to misapply the law when an attorney is present. We want to make sure court houses are open and accessible.”
The goal of the project is to provide free, LGBT-centered legal support, including advice and referrals for representation, to individuals across the state of Michigan. They provide legal consultations via phone, email, or in-person, and cover a variety of practice areas including custody, divorce, adoption, estate matters, name changes, gender marker corrections, public benefits, expungement, and more.
Additionally, student attorneys are on staff creating educational materials to inform LGBT people of their rights in areas of particular concern. Volunteers have the opportunity to shadow local attorneys working on clinical cases.
While the Obergefell v. Hodges case decision was a monumental step forward, Moore said the laws in Michigan are still not fairly applied to the LGBT community.
“I think it’s unfortunate that judges are using marriage as a line in the sand. The appellate decisions prioritize marriage and not the best interests of the child. There were families created prior to issuance of Obergefell and I think that our courts can improve the equitable parent doctrine to make sure that the rights of children are respected and maximized. Michigan is so far behind other states and until the legislature or the courts choose to do the right thing, same-sex families, both parents and children, will suffer.”
If someone is not eligible for KYR Project services because they have adequate income to pay for an attorney, Moore said they can refer that person to an advocate attorney who has some training on and understands the nuances of LGBT issues.
Students participate in the KYR Project once a week for about eight months during the fall and winter semesters.
“We try to provide support to every person who reaches out to the project,” she said. They have provided support in approximately 35 cases, but limited office hours make it difficult to help everyone that reaches out.
Moore said they may have the students do more outreach throughout the week to maximize availability and increase response time this year.
Regardless, the students “get really excited about going that extra mile. Most attorneys are beaten up by the system and are not willing to try. They are willing to do the research,” Moore said. “Michigan is a hard place to practice generally. They bring a fresh perspective and are really helpful.”
And when things get “heavy and emotionally taxing,” Pro Bono Volunteer Shirin Makhkamova said, “Kerene has helped me navigate the difficult line between doing your best work for a client and not becoming too emotionally involved in the case. She has inspired me to appreciate our clients for having courage to share their stories with us, and to approach each case with patience and empathy.”
By going the extra mile, the students have started talks between the Ann Arbor Police Department and the AAHRC about concerns in the LGBT community.
“Specifically, the law students wanted to provide background information as to why LGBT-specific diversity training would be valuable to police officers and how instituting an LGBT liaison to the police department might increase crime reporting and trust in the department,” Moore said. “The students were particularly focused on the transgender community after meeting with a client who expressed concern.”
The students presented their research on best police practices with regard to the LGBT community to AAPD Chief James Baird earlier this year. Members of the AAHRC joined that meeting. The students will continue to provide input on this project when they return in the fall, and the AAHRC continues to explore these issues with the council and the police department.
“There is a lot of progress in this area. I’m on the AAHRC as well, and we have several meetings with the chief and city administrator in the next several weeks to get some movement on these issues,” Moore said.
Not all lawyers are equipped to mentor young aspiring lawyers, but Moore takes the time to break down legal issues, explain each case for the students, and talk through options that exist.
“Legal issues notwithstanding, the KYR Project taught me that people desperately want to be listened to, believed, and understood just as much as they want to be counseled on legal issues. That aspect of human interaction and compassion, especially when working with marginalized groups, is a skill that can be far more important than identifying legal issues and knowing the ‘right’ cure,” Outlaws’ Pro Bono Chair Shannon Niznik said.
“Kerene is also simply brilliant as an attorney. She knows which questions to ask, she knows the law like the back of her hand, and she is in tune with community resources and other practicing attorneys should we need to refer a case. It was eye opening to see her supplement legal knowledge with her ability to leverage community resources. Kerene doesn’t hole herself up in an office. She knows her community, its ails, and its potential to solve problems.”
Regular office hours for the KYR project will resume in September. Call 734-995-9867 to make an appointment or email email@example.com.