Civil Rights Advocate


Attorney follows her destiny from academia to the law

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

With two grandparents as lawyers, and a mother who was an administrative law judge, it was perhaps inevitable Robin Wagner would become a third-generation lawyer—but not until after a career as an associate dean, dean and vice president at several universities.

“I had been avoiding my destiny for decades already—it was about time to give in,” says Wagner, now an attorney with Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC in Royal Oak.

“I discovered that as I climbed the ladder in higher education, I enjoyed my job less and less,” she adds. “And I was becoming more and more thrilled by the pace of advancement of LGBTQ rights in our society—mostly through the courts. I was supporting that work by attending fund-raisers, but I was starting to wish I could be more directly involved.”

The Baltimore native graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University College of Law in 2014 with a certificate in public interest law. Serving on the DePaul Law Review staff, she authored “Are Gay Rights Clearly Established? The Problem with the Qualified Immunity Doctrine,” that was published in the law review. 

A member of the Order of the Coif a national honor society, she received a scholarship from the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago to serve an internship at Lambda Legal, and a scholarship from the Public Interest Law Initiative of Chicago to intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.    

“The internships were both just so thrilling for me,” Wagner says. “I was at Lambda Legal during the summer of 2012, when we had a pending marriage equality case in the Illinois state court and parallel efforts for a legislative change. Ultimately, Illinois changed the laws to allow for marriage equality, but the lawsuit helped motivate the legislature to act. It was so exciting to be a part of that – preparing memos on legal issues related to the case.

“I also got to work on a number of other LGBTQ and HIV-rights issues, and I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to help the Lambda Legal attorneys and their brave clients push for stronger rights.”

At the ACLU of Illinois the following year, Wagner worked on a wider range of issues, including working in support of a case brought by the ACLU in Michigan challenging the Secretary of State’s unfair procedures for a transgender person to change his or her gender marker on a driver’s license.

In 2014, Wagner started a year clerking for Hon. Michael H. Dolinger in the Southern District of New York.

“I learned how the litigation sausage is made, so to speak,” she says.

“Judge Dolinger was on the bench for over 30 years and was known at SDNY as a settlement whisperer—and he had his clerks sit in on all the settlement conferences. I learned so much from observing how the judge worked with the parties back and forth to get to a settlement or a closer understanding of what the ultimate issues of the case were.”

The following year, she began another year’s clerkship, for Judge Judith E. Levy in the Eastern District of Michigan.

“It’s a nerd’s dream come true to spend so much time focused on writing, which is the lion’s share of a clerk’s job,” Wagner says. “But more than that, I felt deeply that before I set out to try and vindicate clients’ rights through the legal system, I wanted to gain an insider’s perspective on how judges evaluate cases and come to their conclusions.

“Among the many reasons I loved clerking for Judge Levy was to work so closely for someone who was at all times applying her wisdom, intelligence and heart to the very hard question of what justice demanded at the given moment for the specific case before her,” she adds. “Her example will always serve as my inspiration and motivation to try and do the same with every client I have the privilege of working for—to try my best to always apply that same whole-mind and whole-heart effort to my legal work. And it was also wonderful for me as a newcomer to Michigan to meet so many members of the bar that year.”

Wagner then spent six months as a staff attorney at Lakeshore Legal Aid in their Detroit Cass Corridor office.

“It's a brave organization full of dedicated people who are taking on very demanding work,” she says. “What I value most about my short time there was the privilege of getting to meet the clients I had and learn from them what real courage is. I thought I had some knowledge of what poverty is and how it affects people’s lives, but I had no understanding at all of poverty in this country until I worked directly with people who truly live at or below the poverty level.

“The clients I met are truly courageous – they live in horrid conditions often, without water or safety, that I could not fathom, and yet they have to carry on every day with all the regular tasks of life– getting the kids to school, dealing with a job that pays poorly, getting food on the table, and all while navigating without even the slightest safety net if something goes awry.”

Wagner has found her prior background in academe an asset to her legal work, such as when, on a case in her days in Chicago that challenged policies of the Chicago Housing Authority, she rooted through annual reports and found a crucial piece of evidence buried in one of them.

“One thing academics do well is research and dig deep into the weeds, so that’s a trait I hang on to and have found is really valued in litigation,” she says.

Wagner, who is helping a transgender client change his name through the ACLU’s partnership with the Transgender Legal Defense Fund, enjoys participating in WLAM events near Ann Arbor and LGBTQ bar section events.

“Members of the bar I have met here in Michigan are so welcoming and generous to a newcomer like me,” she says. “It’s hard to learn one’s way around a new community, but folks with the WLAM and LELS and the social justice organizations of the state have been friendly and helpful at every turn.”

Wagner started her career in quite a different field—earning her undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. 

Fluent in Mandarin, she hopes to develop a client base of Mandarin speakers as her career proceeds.

“When I was at the Southern District of New York, there were so many cases being brought under various federal and state labor laws on behalf of workers who get taken advantage of severely because of their lack of competence in English,” she says. “These cases are not as easy to bring in Michigan, where the state lacks the robust labor protection laws that other states like New York have. And of course, there is a much smaller Chinese immigrant population here than in New York or Chicago, where I translated for the Chinatown legal aid clinic. But I hope to meet people and work with folks in the Chinese immigrant community here and see if there are ways to serve their needs.”   

During her time working for universities, she designed and ran study abroad programs and spent time overseas in Australia, and China. Her passion for travel continues, and she and her wife Sharon— a professor and chair of architecture programs at the University of Michigan—have recently visited Germany, the Czech Republic, China, and Greece.

“It’s great for me to learn new things, and I focus on the food part of the journeys,” Wagner says. “Our next big trip will be in the U.S.—we want to hike and explore one or two of the great national parks out west.”
Despite backgrounds as “big-city gals,” the couple enjoys life in Ann Arbor.    

“We love going to U of M football games, even though neither of us are alumni—but we have all the maize-and-blue accessories and enjoy the huge event that each game is. I also enjoy attending a couple other events a year—women’s gymnastics and women’s basketball in particular,” she says. “We love the food and dining, being able to walk to town, and everything else that everyone loves about Ann Arbor.”