“The pro bono work that I’ve done on behalf of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus is the proudest accomplishment of my career,” Heather Kimmel ’06 said. “In the course of that kind of work, I’ve spent a lot of time with these women, and they’re like family now. I’m standing in their living room after they’ve escaped saying, ‘You don’t know me, but trust me.’ Just the same way everyone else was telling them, ‘You don’t know me, but trust me.’ To build up credibility with them and to see how everything turned out was really amazing.”
Berry, DeJesus, and a third woman, Michelle Knight, were kidnapped and held captive by a man named Ariel Castro in his Cleveland area home in the early 2000s, where he subjected the women to over a decade of abuse. On May 6, 2013, they were finally able to escape the nightmare, but with that freedom came a whole new set of issues to deal with as the women recovered from the ordeal, Kimmel said. “For the first couple of months after they escaped it was really a 24-hour-a-day operation to get the media to stay off of their front porches and to just try to create an existence for them. It was almost like coming back from the dead after 10 years,” Kimmel explained.
“Of course everyone was very happy they were home and that they were back, and that’s great, and that’s fantastic, but now what? Amanda had a daughter and her daughter didn’t have a birth certificate. We talked to social security and some other government agencies about getting programs in place to help them with other things. We helped them buy houses, we were able to walk them through the criminal process before Ariel Castro was sentenced, and we protected them from overzealous prosecutors and interviewers.” Kimmel was brought in to represent the women by James R. Wooley, a partner with Jones Day, where Kimmel was practicing in the areas of corporate criminal defense and government investigations at the time.
“Jim is a former federal prosecutor, and still has a lot of contacts in the FBI. When Amanda, Gina, and Michelle escaped from the house, they were just being completely mobbed by reporters and people wanting to buy their story and all the things that usually go along with that type of situation. The FBI told the women they needed a lawyer, and they needed someone who won’t take advantage of them and they gave them a name. They called Jim, and he said of course,” Kimmel explained. “Jim came to my office and said to me, ‘You need to be the one who works with me on this.’ And of course I said yes.”
Having grown up in a working class household herself, Kimmel said she could relate on a certain level to the women, a fact she and Wooley hoped would help them build a strong level of trust with the victims, allowing them to better help them as they recovered from their harrowing ordeal.
“The living rooms these women had grown up in, they could have been the living rooms of my friends growing up. We had a common background in terms of being very working class,” she said.
And, Wooley knew Kimmel was the right lawyer for the job after years of watching her build a successful practice for herself. The two first met when Kimmel was interning for the City of Cleveland’s legal department one summer in law school. He was a partner at BakerHostetler at the time, serving as a special master on a project the city’s legal department had undertaken, looking at a serologist’s testimony in a number of cases after it was learned he had given false information under oath that unjustly put a man behind bars for over a decade.
“I found his career to be completely fascinating. And I thought, ‘I want to work with that guy.’ And that’s when I really started looking at BakerHostetler. I interned there the following summer and received an offer,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel later moved on to pursue a clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, during which time Wooley left BakerHostetler to join the Cleveland office of Jones Day. When Kimmel began contemplating jumping back into firm practice, she turned to Wooley again for advice on her next career step and later joined him at Jones Day.
Little did the two know at the time, it was a move that would set them up to offer greatly needed pro bono legal services to two women who truly needed their counsel. (Michelle Knight was offered the same services but decided to go in a different direction.)
Kimmel said that throughout that case, Jones Day fully supported their efforts to help Berry, and DeJesus. “Jones Day was so amazing. They told Jim, ‘Of course, go help these women, whatever you need to do, we will clear the way to make that happen.’ For a firm whose clients are not individuals, they’re huge corporations, to just jump in like that was really incredible,” she said.
Together, the two provided more than just legal counsel for the women. They helped connect them with resources, set them up with trust funds created through generous donations from the community, and offered the women a safe place to bounce ideas off of or ask for help completing tasks, like buying a car for the first time, as they attempted to get their lives back on track.
“It was a combination of legal work, sort of quasi-social work, and just general advice. There are some things you just can’t have experience with any other way. For example, buying a car. If you’ve never done that before, and no one in your family has done that before, you need someone to walk you through that process so you can make some good decisions. It was just things like that, they had someone that they could call up and say, ‘Hang on, let me get an opinion on this. What do I do?’” she said.
Kimmel said she is still in touch with Berry and DeJesus today. “We talk frequently,” she said. “I’m proud of the fact that we approached this case with complete integrity. We said from the very beginning we were never going to take a penny, and we were never going to make a penny on any of this. That kept us really grounded in the work and we just always stuck to that principle—even in the face of crazy things happening. I’m just really proud that was the way we were able to handle the work,” she said.
Around the same time Kimmel signed on to help represent the women, she had also reached a point in her work where she began analyzing what she really wanted to do with the rest of her career. She said she began thinking of ways she could use her skills and expertise to help others in the community.
“Shortly before they escaped from the house, I was really looking around at what my career was going to look like and what I needed to do for my own personal satisfaction. And I was really driven by the idea of using my career to help people,” she said.
She stumbled across an opening at the United Church of Christ (UCC), a liberal Christian denomination on the cutting edge of social justice issues, for an associate general counsel.
Kimmel said she thought long and hard about what leaving Jones Day could mean for her career, but ultimately decided to pursue the new opportunity.
“I had been a member of the UCC for a while when I saw they were looking for an associate general counsel. This was never something I thought I’d be interested in,” she said.
“But I looked at the job description and I thought, ‘How many lawyers can say that they have an opportunity to work for an organization that they can completely support?’ And I thought about it, I prayed about it, and I think I submitted my application on the last day before it closed.”
Today, Kimmel said she couldn’t be happier with her decision to go in-house at the church. Describing herself as a “generalist of the old-fashioned sort,” she helps counsel the corporations that make up the denomination in the national setting and the church’s 38 conferences, or middle judicatory bodies, across the U.S.
“I handle everything from litigation management to corporate matters to governance matters and some employment matters, and even some intellectual property issues,” she said. “The really great part of it is the work self-generates. I really like helping people with the day-to-day business issues they have and bringing some legal sophistication to that work.”
Kimmel jokes that she simply moved from one kind of white collar work to another. The transition from working at a large firm to the church wasn’t so much difficult as it was a challenge, which she said she has thoroughly enjoyed.
“I was very well prepared for it because I think through both my clerkship and the work I did at Jones Day, I know where to get the answers. And I think that’s key. You can issue spot, like any good lawyer should be able to do, and then you need to know where to get the answers. It wasn’t that it was difficult, it was just different. And I loved it,” she said.
That hard work and dedication to the church’s mission haven’t gone unnoticed by others in the organization. Kimmel was recently promoted to general counsel of the UCC, a position she stepped into on Dec. 1.