HEATHER GILBERT, president of Gilbert Law PLLC, represents individuals with disability discrimination claims against medical providers, employers, and public entities. She is fluent in American Sign Language and is the only attorney in Minnesota who is also a court-certified sign language interpreter. Gilbert Law, known as Minnesota’s “deaf-friendly” law firm, provides a wide-array of legal services in American Sign Language in addition to disability discrimination, including estate planning, family law, and business law.
Tell us about your experiences as a legal sign language interpreter before going to law school.
After graduation in 2002 with a BA in American Sign Language/English Interpretation, I began interpreting for Disney World and the surrounding Orlando area. I interpreted for cruise lines, medical providers, employers, theaters and government services. In 2003, I moved to Minnesota for graduate school, achieved my national interpreter certification credentials and shortly thereafter started working for the state at Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, a division of the Department of Human Services (DHS). While in that position, I worked as an interpreter for Minnesota government employees that were deaf or hard of hearing and also for the Minnesota Legislature.
While working at the state, I also achieved my legal interpreting credentials to qualify for Minnesota and federal court interpreting. When I decided to attend law school, I ended my position at the state and started working under a grant from DHHS as an advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people experiencing discrimination in emergency medical and emergency legal settings.
When you went to law school did you expect that you would open your own law practice after graduating or did you make that decision later?
I started law school with the single-minded intention to represent deaf individuals in discrimination claims, although I didn’t think I would start my own firm one week after getting my license to practice. But after I graduated, there were so many deaf people eager to have an ASL lawyer, and so few law firms hiring in the grim 2012 market, that I secured a free office space, available conference room, and several mentors and co-counsel to get started. Within six months, I had acquired nearly 30 clients (not all of which were discrimination claims) and secured a website, logo and a law clerk. It really wasn’t intentional to start a law firm on my own, but now that it has happened, I see that it was the best decision I could have ever made. As a self-employed business owner for the five years leading up to graduation, I knew how to incorporate, understood the ebb and flow of income, and had a great CPA and business coach. I kept my overhead low and used the Mitchell Hamline law library for a while until I could afford my own Westlaw account.
Are disability discrimination cases the foundation of your practice?
Disability discrimination is the foundation of our practice, however, the reason we have added more attorneys is because there is such a great need in Minnesota for ASL fluent attorneys with expertise in other practice areas. We offer several types of transactional legal services including business law, estate planning, and family law. The only civil litigation cases we take are discrimination claims.
We are discovering there is such a huge need for affordable private practice legal services in Minnesota and the surrounding states for the deaf and hard of hearing community that we are expanding our practice to serve those needs. We have people contacting us for representation all over the state, which requires a lot of travel. We have court hearings, depositions and meetings that require more than one attorney. Reviewing medical records, interviewing clients and witnesses, and writing briefs is too much for one attorney once the case load starts to grow. For the past three years I have had a lot of support from clerks and paralegals, but that isn’t enough anymore.
Do you have advice for an attorney who wants to build a niche practice?
Finding a niche starts first and foremost by discovering the passion that drives you and the vision you have to make it happen. I advise a prospective start-up to secure a business coach and/or life coach to help develop this foundational perspective.
I have both, and along with a good CPA, they are the most valuable professional resource in which I invest. Knowing and owning your passion, vision and mission is the foundation on which I stand when business is slow, when litigation gets tough, and when I am tempted to give up. Everything else you need to know you can learn at the
MN CLE courses.