Heather Gilbert ’12 has combined her skills in American Sign Language, with her J.D., to create a thriving Roseville, Minn., law firm. Gilbert appears to be the only private practice attorney in the state who is also a court-certified sign language interpreter.
And now with the help of some of the school’s on the-job-training programs, she’s hired a fellow alum, Terra Frazier ’15, as an associate attorney at Gilbert Law.
Frazier credits those workplace opportunities for helping her secure a job, even before she graduated.
“The school definitely lived up to its goal of offering the tools to get real world experience, and helping take advantage of those opportunities,” Frazier said.
Heather Gilbert began the process of combining sign language and the law in 2002, when she earned an undergraduate degree in ASL. That led to a number of jobs, including interpreting for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and the Minnesota legislature.
While taking law classes, Gilbert also worked as a sign language interpreter for Minnesota’s District Court system.
“I visited half of all of the 87 counties in Minnesota, interpreting court matters for deaf people, before I started practicing law.” Gilbert said.
It became obvious to Gilbert that the state needed more lawyers to work directly with deaf and hard of hearing people.
“I could see there was a need for deaf discrimination representation,” Gilbert said. “There was a need for criminal law, criminal defense, and family law.”
Shortly after receiving her license to practice in May 2012, she began working with her first deaf client.
Word of Gilbert’s work spread in the deaf community, and within a few months, she had enough customers to start her own firm. Today 80 percent of her clients are deaf or hard of hearing. Many of the cases involve work discrimination, or the right to access interpreters under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Gilbert’s firm also works with the deaf community on family law issues, and estate planning.
When Gilbert was ready to grow her practice, she turned to the school’s Externship Program, which offers students real world legal experience in the workplace.
That’s where Gilbert found Terra Frazier, who at the time was a 1L student with sign language experience.
“I didn’t even consider there would be this niche of needs for clients who know American Sign Language,” Frazier said. “It was really a unique, and special opportunity to find each other.”
When Frazier’s externship ended, Gilbert was able to keep her on as a part of the school’s work study program.
After that program ran out, Gilbert hire Frazier as a law clerk. Once Frazier graduated, passed the bar, and received her license to practice this fall, she was hired as the firm’s first associate attorney.
The Externship Program that helped Gilbert launch her career, is just one of the many ways that Mitchell Hamline offers real world experience to its students. There’s also a Legal Residency Program, the Semester in Practice program, clinical programs and many pro-bono opportunities.