On a summer day in 2018 my husband and I were racing up I-75 past a backdrop of blurred cornfields and unnamed midwestern cities. In the back seat, our rising high school senior slept peacefully, but the car was filled with hints of angst and fear and a few hidden tears. I gripped my cell phone like a weapon; as we sped through the middle of nowhere, it was going to be our lifeline. What our sleeping son did not know is that his older brother’s freshman year in college had just crumbled into a unimaginable nightmare when he was falsely accused of sexual misconduct and then vilified as a campus rapist.
This trip had been planned for over a year, so despite the circumstances we drove north with purpose, determined to hold our family together and preserve a lifetime of assumptions and expectations. Not only were we reeling from the horror of what became a very public accusation, we had begun to realize that our local attorney, while excellent in many ways, was no longer effective against the viciousness of a Title IX campus tribunal. The college crafted an attack on our son which defied and shattered every notion of fairness, justice, and truth, and due process was apparently never even on the table. Everything we were promised in the slick brochures simply vanished and the personal assurances we received at orientation turned out to be empty. After witnessing absolutely appalling bias and treachery during the investigation, we finally woke up and knew what we needed – a dedicated, experienced Title IX attorney who would champion our son. The problem was, our few brief encounters with the Title IX Office had already stripped us of a critical element in decision making: trust.
Even as we pulled out of town my husband and I were already straining to appear functional, so by day 2 we were emotionally shredded. Aside from pretending to be model parents on a college tour, we were desperately worried about the broken soul we left at home. Having been betrayed so deeply by his friends, a fraternity and an institution he once loved, our older son was now safe under the watchful eye of a grandparent. We had taken him on a similar drive just two years earlier, making the college tour a rite of passage in our family. At the time, we assumed that had been a fruitful and successful process and that as parents, we did everything right. After all, our family was fully outfitted with branded hats, sweatshirts and water bottles, and the cars were sporting those collegiate bumper stickers that scream “all in.” And even though we were now terrified for our older son and completely shell shocked from the Title IX matter, we were nevertheless taking son number 2 to look at colleges. We were juggling two entirely different emotions, fear and hope, each competing for our attention.
So armed with only that cell phone and the Google search results for “leading Title IX attorneys,” we devised a plan to research, interview, and somehow choose the person who essentially had to become nothing short of a hero. All on the road, all while pretending to be okay, and all in 5 days. While this was a tall order, our criteria was fairly straightforward:
- What is the firm’s overall Title IX experience? Essentially, we needed to be assured that the firm had full command of the legal landscape that surrounded Title IX and enough experience that little would shock or surprise them. We wanted total expertise.
- What is the firm’s philosophy when dealing with college disciplinary hearings? How would you characterize your style? We were looking for balanced aggressiveness – fight and protect.
- Describe how you collaborate with your clients. How well does the firm work with the student and parents? We were extremely invested in the process already and were lucky to have an exceptionally close relationship with our son. My husband and I were a non-negotiable part of the package.
- How involved or informed is the firm with current Title IX policy issues or discussions? Our family’s experience began during a very charged national conversation about #MeToo and proposed reforms to Title IX. While we were unsure how that tension would affect our son’s case, we wanted to maximize all available leverage.
- Based on a few email exchanges and phone calls, could we envision a productive relationship with these people? We understood that we faced a potentially long, difficult process filled with hard conversations, potential setbacks, and the looming threat of having to file a federal lawsuit. This partnership needed to be solid.
Looking back, what we did was essentially create surrogates for trust, an emotion we were no longer able to summon. After hours of calls and emails, followed by even more hours of debate, ten names became five; and then five became two. Somehow, we completed this process on an overheated phone discreetly pulled out between presentations about freshman language requirements and sales pitches for shiny new dormitories. At the same time we could see our younger son’s head spinning with college admissions overload. With all of the information and promises thrust at him, how would he choose? How would we? The irony of this trip was not lost on us.
Before wrapping up at the last college, our son met with the admissions advisor who had worked with him for months. When he emerged, we saw on his face that he belonged right there, at that very school. Months had been spent attending college fairs, preparing for the SAT, scheduling interviews, and writing essays. In the end, he realized he already had all of the information he needed and it was never about the fancy promises. He chose his college because of the connection he made with a person – all things being equal, the decision was about an honest connection…it was about trust. We were going to have to bury our fears and let him go.
Early in the evening, as we pulled into the final hotel of our road trip, I received a phone call from Marybeth Sydor, the Title IX Consultant who works beside Andrew Miltenberg, one of our top candidates early on. For days I had been emailing her volumes of documents trying to paint a clear and accurate picture of our son’s situation. She had patiently walked me through their process and thoroughly addressed every concern on our list. While my husband and son went to check-in I took the call in the car. I was completely overwhelmed, physically exhausted and very nearly numb when I heard her say, “We think we can help your son.” After all of the research and the checklists and the interviews and the heated debates, it came down to hearing those words. Maybe more importantly, it was what I sensed: empathy, honesty, and a sincere shared outrage that just simply connected us. I’m pretty sure that’s called trust. When the guys returned to the car I turned to my husband and smiled, “We found our people.”