Joshua Newville is a civil rights and employment law litigator at Madia Law in Minneapolis. A self-described “cause lawyer,” Newville is committed to confronting discrimination and unfair treatment. A Wisconsin native, he attended undergrad and law school at the University of Minnesota. Despite graduating only four years ago, Newville has already handled several high profile trial and appellate matters.
Why did you decide to go to law school?
I was born to teenage parents who lived in a trailer in rural Wisconsin. Growing up, racial epithets, domestic violence, and homophobia were common. I knew what the KKK was by the time I was four. But as a child, I met a few lawyers who were nice to me and were forces for good. One of them, in particular, was a vocal critic of hatred and prejudice. I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer in the second grade (although I then spelled it L-A-Y-E-R).
In 1998, shortly after Matthew Shepard was murdered, I realized that I was gay. For a long time, I was petrified. I didn’t tell anyone. In a weird way, it propelled me. It changed the trajectory of my life. In an effort to hide my sexuality and avoid an abusive stepfather, I focused on academics and athletics. Thankfully, a well-funded public school district gave me refuge. Propelled by some amazing teachers, I became the first in my extended family to attend college.
When I graduated high school, homosexuality was still a criminal offense in many states. Then, in 2006, Wisconsin joined many states in passing a ban on same-sex marriage. It caused me to recommit myself to attending law school and becoming a lawyer who would fight discrimination.
How did you develop a relationship with J. Ashwin Madia and begin practicing at Madia Law?
I met Ashwin during my 1L year, based on a referral from Roshan Rajkumar. Ashwin had started Madia Law only 11 months earlier. I clerked for him through graduation; I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling and practical experience. Then, he hired me as his first associate. He’s an incredible mentor, both personally and professionally.
You got your law license four years ago and have already handled significant cases, including overturning laws against same-sex marriage in South and North Dakota.
I’ve had the incredible fortune of surrounding myself with a combination of people who are brilliant and people who have given me some amazing opportunities. Regarding the marriage cases specifically, a law school classmate (David Patton) referred a South Dakota couple to me (at the time, their names were Jennie Rosenkranz and Nancy Robrahn). They are amazing women, and I will forever look up to them—for so many reasons. They couldn’t find anyone to take their case. I eventually met 12 more families who also wanted to challenge the bans in both South Dakota and North Dakota.
The national LGBT-rights organizations didn’t want us bringing the cases; they were certain we’d mess up their national strategy. I disagreed with their analysis. So, on behalf of these 13 incredible families, we went ahead and filed challenges against the bans in federal court. What an experience! I’ll never forget sitting at in a packed federal courtroom arguing against the South Dakota Attorney General and realizing the history of the moment.
I never thought I’d get the opportunity to fight one (let alone two) of these bans. Along the way, I connected with some great lawyers who were fighting similar battles—including Shannon Minter at the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Dana Nessel, a private lawyer in Michigan. The help they gave me cannot be overstated.
While those were incredible experiences, and I am overjoyed that we now have nationwide marriage equality, there is still a lot of discrimination in this country—against all sorts of minorities. My focus is on continuing to combat that—even when the cases aren’t so high profile.
Do you have any advice for newer attorneys trying to advance their careers?
First, I know it sounds cliché, but I firmly believe that the best way to advance your career—and to be happy on a broader level—is to really love your work. We’re so much better at our jobs when we’re passionate about our work. Take time to understand what motivates you. Then, do your best to end up in a position that’s congruent with those motivations.
Second, the best lesson I’ve learned so far is that while assertive confidence is extremely helpful to your career, arrogant confidence can be debilitating.