'I've re-invented myself as an attorney'

New Yorker digs heels into Ann Arbor's legal community

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

When attorney Angie Martell says she has a 5 p.m. appointment she absolutely can't break, she means she can't be late for the delivery to her Chelsea farmhouse of three French Toulouse geese--subsequently named Francoise, Sophie and Josephine.

Quite a switch for a woman who moved to Michigan after 50 years in New York City and one memorable year in Cambridge.

Since becoming a Michigander in 2011, Martell has become a deeply involved member of the Washtenaw County Bar Association who finds herself living happily with her family and assorted critters on their farm.

So every morning, wen she feeds the pigs or collects the eggs, she knows she's not in the South Bronx anymore.

Nor is she any longer working at a government agency.

Instead, as a sole practitioner at Iglesia Martell Law Firm, she is free to focus on the civil rights work that has interested her for decades.

"What's been exciting about being here is I've re-invented myself in the law," said Martell, sitting in the small, comfortable office in Ann Arbor's City Center building on Main Street. "Civil rights and finding equality under the law has always been my passion. What I realized is all that really is, is holistic lawyering; finding a way of the law transforming itself to be what it should be, which is peacemakers. Helping people find a way of making peace, and finding their own solutions. What's nice is that in Michigan, people are already doing that with collaborative divorce, transformative mediation. That's what my practice is about--helping people find solutions in a holistic, mindful way."

Martell grew up in South Bronx. She earned a degree in Spanish literature at New York University, and then got her master's degree in media studies from The New School for Social Research in Manhattan. After graduating from the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, she went on to get a graduate law degree from Harvard.

In fact, she was there when the Obamas were there.

"He was a quiet guy--I remember Michelle much more," she said. "He was very quiet; very studious."

She recalled that in 1990, Obama, as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, joined a protest when Harvard denied tenure to Regina Austin, a black professor seeking tenure.

After leaving Harvard, she became a public defender in Manhattan.

"That was rather interesting," she said. "I didn't even know where to stand in the courtroom! My first clients knew that, and they were like, `Oh, a new person! Oh no!'"

"They gave me about 25 prostitution cases and the judge said, `Can you do it in the next 20 minutes?'"

Her rent at the time was $204 a month, a great deal in New York City. Except that she lived "on a drug block."

"That's why I had to excuse myself from a few cases," she said.

Next, she worked at the New York Attorney General's Office Civil Rights Bureau, opened her own practice for a while, spent two years representing indigent individuals with AIDS at Bronx AIDS Services, and then she worked for the New York City Department of Corrections doing administrative hearings.

After that, she took some time off and had twins - a boy and a girl - with her longtime partner. (They've been domestic partners for 16 years; married for three. Martell's wife gave birth to the babies, and Martell adopted them.)

"I always say (the twins) are much harder than the most difficult clients I've ever had," she said, laughing. "The negotiation is extreme. I never seem to win the negotiation. I'm like, `OK, whatever. Let's settle this.'"

Martell is married to the sister of Pat Conlin, the outgoing president of the Washtenaw County Bar Association, and they are neighbors on land owned by Conlin's father, Pat Conlin, in rural Chelsea.

"What a treat it is for me to practice law with my family," said Pat Conlin, adding that his three sons were at that moment having dinner with their cousins.

He said he's impressed with Martell's intelligence, and when he asked her to co-chair the WCBA's bias awareness committee, he noted her ability to quickly grab hold of a project and run with it.

Martell is just as happy to be living close to family.

"It's, `Patrick, can you come over and help us with this!'" she said with a laugh. "He's a great guy."

Martell's office is accented with artwork brought home from travels in Latin America and Europe, as well as photos of her son and daughter, who will soon be 10.

The twins are the answer to "Why Michigan?"

"We wanted a different life for the kids," she said. "In New York, it was hard because you have to be outside with them. Their grandparents are here. Their family is here. I didn't have any more family in New York. And we just wanted a different life. And we got that."

Her daughter has an egg business, and her son is in the process of marketing venison jerky. And they love living so close to their cousins and grandparents.

But the move to Michigan didn't start out so well for Martell. Just four months after the move, Martell decided she needed to spend more time with the kids and took them ice skating. She was holding onto a ledge, let go for a moment, and fell backwards, breaking her ankle in three places.

It took her nine months to walk again.

But since then, it's been hard to get her to stop.

Her general practice--Iglesia Martell Law Firm, PLLC - is "more about the community."

"I speak Spanish, and one of the areas I'm targeting is the Latino community, and the gay and lesbian community as well," she said. "There are a lot of people here who are also attorneys in gay and lesbian law, but I think there are going to be a plethora of issues to deal with once DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) is gone. My goal is that 100 years from now, there won't be a need for the kind of law we are practicing. Lawyer's roles will be peacemakers, problem solvers, and healers of conflict.

"Right now, we're creating a caste system in the criminal justice system. We're incarcerating so many people that we're creating a population of people that are not able to be active members of society and get jobs, vote ... I think the law needs to change, it is going to get there. It has to get there."

Her whole life has been about civil rights, she said.

"My mother, father, and step-father are all deaf, and I grew up at a time when the ADA was nonexistent," she said. "So (my two younger siblings and I) were their interpreters. So the ADA was very very important legislation to my mother and the deaf community at large."

Martell grew up on welfare, and by the age of 16, she was on her own, sleeping on a high school teacher's couch after her mother moved to Florida. That same teacher suggested she apply to college.

"I said, `College? Nobody in my family has ever gone to college!'" she recalled. "But it was a place where I'd have room and board, so why not?"

She got accepted at NYU, and started right away.

"It was very scary," she said. "I had never left the South Bronx. But it was an eye-opener; a wonderful door that opened."

Because she's now working for herself, Martell has more freedom to explore options that reflect her values. When she volunteers at the Washtenaw County Public Defender's Office, she asks each person how she can help.

"For example, in the Latino community, I'm concerned about the collateral consequences of conviction for deportation," she said. "I'm looking at the broader picture: `OK, so this is your legal problem. But what are some of the other things you're facing?'"

She tries to help those going through a divorce keep both costs and stress to a minimum.

Because she's found local lawyers so welcoming, Martell has eagerly gotten involved in several WCBA committees and activities, and is co-chair of its diversity committee and chair of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender committee, as well as a member of the Hispanic Bar, WLAM, Washtenaw County Inn of Court, and attorney PD, Stonewall Bar Association.

She does a lot networking and plans to host workshops about local legal issues in a local restaurant.

"My struggle right now is learning to be present," said Martell, who takes weekly meditation classes at the Chelsea Wellness Center. "Because when you multi-task too much, you're never present inside."

All in all, Michigan has been a great move, she said.

The only things she misses about New York are the pizza, the bagels (it's all about the water), the subway.

"And the Yankees!" she said, then added with a smile: "But don't tell anyone!"

Published: Mon, Apr 22, 2013

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