INTERVIEW: Joe Dunman talks going solo, hardcore, and fighting the man!

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about Joe Dunman. In my own experience, I’ve known Joe for almost twenty years. In that time, I’ve seen him evolve from rowdy hardcore kid to lawyer (and refined hardcore adult). You may recognize his name for his work on the Obergefell v. Hodges case that made Gay Marriage nationally legal. As a civil rights attorney, Dunman works to make the world a better place, whether that’s through his legal work, his excellent contributions to Insider Louisville, as an educator, or through the always enjoyable Parade of Horribles podcast, which you can listen to below (coming soon to the Never Nervous Podcast Network). We caught up to Dunman to ask about his impending transition to a solo practice, his punk rock history, and how to stay informed!

Never Nervous: When did you know that you’d want to be a lawyer? What was the process like?

Joe Dunman: Roughly five years into a career as a tech-oriented middle manager, I realized that my bachelor’s degree was not getting me the kind of work that felt fulfilling. I was 28, not advancing, staring at databases and SQL reports all day, and not making decent money. So I had a bright idea. I would use the tuition remission I got from my job at UofL to attend law school part time and get a law degree. I spent the next four years working full time and sitting in class until 10 pm every night. It sucked. I don’t recommend that anyone do that. I graduated and passed the bar exam in 2012 and have been working as an attorney ever since.

NN: What is the day to day work of a lawyer like?

JD: It varies tremendously. Some days you meet with clients and pretend to be a competent life counselor. Other days, you depose witnesses, which is usually an all-day process of interviewing people who don’t like you and don’t want to be there. Other days, you research cases on Westlaw or Lexis Nexis and write boring briefs and motions. On particularly exciting days, you actually get to argue with other attorneys in front of judges in court. And some days you do all those things all in the same day.

NN: In specific, what is your legal niche?

JD: My practice is dominated by civil rights claims, constitutional claims, employment discrimination claims, and I dabble a little bit in contract disputes and post-conviction inmate rights claims.

NN: Are there any types of cases that you avoid or that you’d prefer to avoid? How do you approach a case where you may not agree with the plaintiff (sorry if my legal terminology is off)?

JD: I did one divorce and vowed never again to practice family law cases. People are at their absolute worst when dealing with spouses, children, and parents.

As for individual clients, it’s actually quite common for me to represent people I don’t agree with politically. Especially in employment cases. I have represented police officers and corrections officers who are night-and-day different with me on most issues, but I was able to help them resolve employment disputes and they, like everyone else, deserve an advocate. There are legal issues I won’t touch for personal reasons – I won’t do DUI cases, for example – but a client’s personal views are usually not a deal-breaker when it comes to deciding to represent them. I don’t take clients who have bad cases.

“It’s actually quite common for me to represent people I don’t agree with politically. Especially in employment cases. I have represented police officers and corrections officers who are night-and-day different with me on most issues, but I was able to help them resolve employment disputes and they, like everyone else, deserve an advocate. There are legal issues I won’t touch for personal reasons – I won’t do DUI cases, for example – but a client’s personal views are usually not a deal-breaker when it comes to deciding to represent them.”

NN: How did you get involved in the Supreme Court Case involving Gay Marriage? What did you learn from that experience?

JD: It’s a long story (there’s a documentary coming out in the summer), but the short of it is that two local attorneys had filed a case challenging Kentucky’s gay marriage ban and they needed help, so they reached out to my firm and we agreed to join the effort. The unconstitutionality of gay marriage bans became obvious to me in law school, and as a friend and family member to lots of LGBT folks, I was honored to take up the fight for them. We (my colleagues Dan Canon and Laura Landenwich, and myself) took over the briefing and grunt work in the case and two years later (and with a lot of help from attorneys at the ACLU and Stanford Law School) we won at the US Supreme Court. I learned that it takes a shit-ton of people working very hard for months to achieve something like that and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to help.

“The unconstitutionality of gay marriage bans became obvious to me in law school, and as a friend and family member to lots of LGBT folks, I was honored to take up the fight for them.”

NN: Why are you going solo? What prompted your leave from your current firm and why?

JD: Technically I’ve always been solo. My former firm is a conglomeration of self-employed attorneys. It’s a lot like a hair salon, where each attorney pays rent to share space and paralegal staff. I simply decided to relocate my practice to a cheaper, less-stressful space. I’ve been teaching and writing more and so I’ve scaled back the amount of legal work I do.

NN: What challenges do you see as inherent to having your own practice? Do you think you’ll get any partners or anything like that?

JD: The biggest challenge is money. There is heavy competition in Louisville among attorneys and getting a reliable source of clients and income is the biggest hurdle to any solo lawyer. As for growth, at this point I don’t see myself growing my practice into a partnership but I won’t rule anything out.

NN: When did you start the Parade of Horribles? What have you taken away from that? Do you see the podcast continuing?

JD: My colleague Dan Canon dreamed up doing a podcast sometime in 2015. We batted around some names and ultimately landed on “Parade of Horribles,” which refers to slippery slope arguments where you say something is bad, because it will lead to all kinds of worse things in the future. It’s a common tactic in constitutional litigation and the late Justice Antonin Scalia was infamous for using it in his dissents to gay rights and other civil liberties cases.

Parade of Horribles has been great because I’ve learned so much from so many great people. We’ve interviewed a wide range of do-gooders on the show, both attorneys and non-attorneys. We’ve talked about immigration law, police abuse cases, gay marriage, the death penalty, feminism, Black Lives Matter, restorative justice, and a ton of other topics.

I hope it continues. Dan and I intend on doing it for the foreseeable future, and we both still have lots of fun with it.

NN: How has punk and hardcore influenced your philosophy, politically or otherwise? Do you think it had an impact on your career as a lawyer?

JD: I still consider myself a “hardcore kid,” even though I’m now pushing 40. I wear a suit three to five days out of the week, but am covered in tattoos underneath all that fine wool. I still claim straight edge (just hit my 20th edgeversary!). Punk is in my blood. I try to approach the law with a punk mindset. Who has the power? How are they using that power? Who benefits or is hurt by it? Is that fair? Is that legal? Should it be legal? How does the law benefit the powerful and how can it better protect the powerless? These are all questions constantly running through my brain, and I attribute much of that to my punk upbringing.

“I still consider myself a “hardcore kid,” even though I’m now pushing 40. I wear a suit three to five days out of the week, but am covered in tattoos underneath all that fine wool. I still claim straight edge (just hit my 20th edgeversary!). Punk is in my blood. I try to approach the law with a punk mindset. Who has the power? How are they using that power? Who benefits or is hurt by it? Is that fair? Is that legal? Should it be legal? How does the law benefit the powerful and how can it better protect the powerless?”

Also, one of the most important tools an attorney can have is a strong bullshit detector. The key component of punkness, at least for me growing up in the mid-90s, was calling out bullshit when you see it. Bullshit in religion, bullshit in politics, bullshit in capitalism, bullshit in personal relationships. That translated very well to my legal career.

NN: What can you tell us about your work as an educator? How was it to teach? Do you believe that you’ll continue with that going forward?

JD: I’ve done a lot of cool things over the course of my life, but the absolute coolest so far is teaching college undergrads. I began teaching as an adjunct professor this past fall and it was really great. I taught a class on American constitutional rights and even though the students were just sophomore undergrads, they took to the material and really got it. I’m a constitutional law junky and they responded well to my enthusiasm for the Supreme Court and the big civil rights issues that permeate American law. I got a bunch of great student evaluations and feedback, too. It was really touching to hear that so many of the students loved my class so much.

“I’ve done a lot of cool things over the course of my life, but the absolute coolest so far is teaching college undergrads.”

Honestly, if I could find a full-time teaching job, I’d quit practicing law today. I absolutely love teaching and the scholarly aspect of academia and would much prefer to teach and write for a living rather than argue over money with other lawyers all the time. If anybody needs a political science or law professor (hell, I can do history, too), shoot me an email. Blindly applying for those jobs is brutal, and very competitive.

NN: What is the best thing that anyone can do to remain a more informed citizen?

JD: My default answer is “read and watch all the news you can find,” but that seems obsolete anymore. News is mostly junk. Even serious outlets focus on spectacle over substance, infighting over interests, and just plain bullshit over stuff that matters. For example, New York Magazine recently did a piece about feminist intellectual Judith Butler. A friend of hers had a landlord/tenant dispute with some guy. The New York Mag piece focused entirely on these scathing emails Butler sent to this guy, threatening to rain down on his head the full weight of her academic influence. As a very brief side note, the author of the article mentioned that a judge’s order got the guy out of the apartment he was squatting in, not any of Butler’s fiery emails. It turns out there is an actual legal process to resolve disputes like that, but all New York Mag, this prestigious news and opinion outlet, cared about was that some feminist celebrity wrote some EVISCERATING emails to some guy who doesn’t matter to anybody. It would be helpful to pretty much everyone to know more about the legal process that ultimately evicted the guy, and the judge’s reasoning for kicking him out, but nope, sorry. All we care about is that some liberal celebrity wrote something stern.

This article dominated my FB and Twitter feeds for a whole day, and it was absolutely worthless as news. That is mostly what the liberal bubble has devolved into. It’s a cesspool. Another example that immediately comes to mind is the constant drumbeat from various outlets about how many more popular votes Clinton got than Trump. That would be really important if we didn’t have an Electoral College, but we do, so it’s absolutely pointless to keep harping about it. And yet, big headlines. CLINTON NOW AHEAD THREE MILLION IN POPULAR VOTE COUNT. Who cares? It doesn’t make Trump less president, or America less fucked.

But I digress. To stay informed you have to very carefully curate your sources, and be skeptical of bullshit at all times. It can be tough to discern bullshit from legit news, so always double check what you read with some kind of backup searching. Avoid partisan drivel. Republican propaganda is always disingenuous crap, but Democrat propaganda is really starting to fester, too.

NN: Is there any possibility of the Trump administration having any lasting and permanent damage to civil liberties?

JD: Absolutely. There is a great possibility. The greatest. There is a vacancy on the Supreme Court right now that Trump will get to fill. That spot was previously occupied by the most conservative Supreme Court justice in history (Scalia), so Trump can’t do much worse. BUT, there will likely be one or two more vacancies in the next four years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy are both in their 80s and may not last much longer. If they go, Trump could stack the Court with a stronger conservative majority than it has ever had. That could fundamentally change the way the Constitution is interpreted for a generation or more. While it is unlikely that rights already protected would be scrapped entirely (like gay marriage or abortion), they could be whittled down and weakened. And the Fourth Amendment, which protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, and which has already been seriously harmed by the never-ending war on drugs, could become totally meaningless if a clear majority of “law and order” authoritarians take over the Court. If you like police shooting unarmed suspects now, you’ll really love them when they become explicitly legal instead of just practically legal as they are now.

“If you like police shooting unarmed suspects now, you’ll really love them when they become explicitly legal instead of just practically legal as they are now.”

NN: What have you been reading, watching, eating, or drinking lately and why?

JD: Lately I’ve been reading a ton of fiction. Mostly science fiction and fantasy. In just December I read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I Robot by Isaac Asimov, Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Neuromancer by William Gibson, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow. I’ve just started the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. He does really great, brutally violent sword and sorcery. I am also constantly reading parts of various nonfiction books, mostly on the Jim Crow era and constitutional law.

I don’t watch much TV, but I did start Man in the High Castle a couple of weeks ago. I’m only two episodes in, and it departs a lot from the book, but it’s pretty decent. A week or so ago I watched Europa Report, a movie about a space expedition to Jupiter that was pretty good. And my wife had never seen Lord of the Rings, so I watched those movies with her. I very rarely go to the movie theater. I haven’t seen Rogue One yet.

Mostly I play video games when I’m not reading or writing in my spare time. I’m a big Bethesda fan, so Skyrim and Fallout are in constant rotation. I’ve also been playing a great shooter from 2007 called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Dark and super difficult. The gunplay in that game is very realistic, and as a gun guy, I appreciate that.

I generally eat like crap. I drink too much Coke Zero. Gallons of it every day.

NN: What have you been listening to lately and why?

JD: The absolute best band in the world right now is Khemmis, a doom metal band out of Denver. Their new record Hunted is easily the best doom record I’ve heard in years. It’s incredible. Crushingly heavy, hauntingly melodic. Just the best. I’ve also been listening to the most recent records from Meshuggah, Cult of Luna, Aborted, Origin, Blood Incantation, and Ulcerate. All metal of various sorts. I don’t see any reason to listen to any music that lacks heaviness, so I generally don’t.