It took a plane, a boat, a bus, a truck, and a nighttime crossing of the Rio Grande before 13-year-old Angela—name changed to protect her identity—finally arrived in Houston. She’d lived all her life in Mexico with her grandmother; but now her mother, who had given birth to her as a teenager, was taking charge. Enticed by promises of a better education, Angela followed her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a “coyote” who helped smuggle people across the border, and crossed illegally into the United States.
The promises of a better future disappeared when Angela and her mother went shopping for clothes. “[Angela] wanted to buy clothes appropriate for going to school and her mother was selecting clothes that were appropriate for being a prostitute,” says Dykema attorney Dan Stephenson. When Angela voiced her displeasure at her mother’s choices, her mother told her she wasn’t there for school; she was there to work. “That’s when the realization dawned on her that, ‘This is what I was brought here for,’” Stephenson says.
For three months in 2008, Angela spent 11-hour days as a prostitute, with all of her earnings passed over to her mother. When the FBI busted the prostitution ring, Angela cooperated with authorities, who eventually became concerned for her physical safety and moved her to Michigan, where she was put under the care of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
And that’s where Angela met Stephenson, a trial attorney who was then at Dykema’s Ann Arbor office.
Months prior, Stephenson had been on a panel titled “How to Be a Healthy and Happy Lawyer.” Stephenson assumes he represented the healthy side. A world-class swimmer in high school and college, he continues to jump back in the water “every time I want to challenge myself,” he says.
On the panel, Stephenson found himself moved by the experiences of another speaker, a clinical professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, who described the sex-trafficking cases he’d been working on. Stephenson wanted to help as well. “Within a couple of months,” he says, “[Angela’s case] came to me through our pro bono coordinator at Dykema [who] said, ‘You said you’d like to work on a case like this; here it is.’”
Angela, at the time, was classified as an illegal immigrant and faced the risk of deportation. Yet when presented with the option to apply for T Nonimmigrant Status, a “T visa,” which is a special four-year visa for victims of human trafficking, Angela was hesitant about whether she wanted to stay in the U.S.
“Her initial reaction was, ‘Here I am in [Michigan], a place I have never been; I have nobody related to me anywhere near me and I miss my grandmother,’” Stephenson says. He helped convince her that staying in the U.S. was in her best interest; then, after the submission of a very detailed declaration to the Department of Homeland Security, Angela, in December 2010, received her T visa.
In July 2009, shortly after he took on Angela’s case, Stephenson moved to LA, to help build the firm’s West Coast office.
“The Midwestern values and the Midwestern culture and the Midwestern way of doing things have gotten into our LA office,” Stephenson says. “We bring something to the market that maybe some of the biggest firms don’t bring, and part of that is delivering value to the clients. Our rates are probably 25 to 30 percent below the top of the market in LA, and a lot of clients find that attractive these days.”
Stephenson came to the law after graduating from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering. “I saw myself, if I chose an engineering career, as being someone who didn’t write very much,” he says. “And what attracted me to law was the writing side of it.”
Choosing a practice area at the University of Michigan Law School was easier. “I got a taste of litigation, of being in court, and it seemed to fit me,” Stephenson says. “I was a swimmer in college and before college and a little bit after college ... so I liked the adrenaline rush of being in a competition and having a winner and a loser.”
Stephenson wasn’t just any swimmer. In 1978, he was ranked fifth in the world in the 200-meter freestyle and qualified to swim in the 1980 Olympic trials. Then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. “The boycott was announced probably less than a month before final exams of my first year of law school,” Stephenson says. “The boycott made it an easy decision for me to retire.”
He returned to swimming 10 years later and recently set world records in his age group in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles. But with a busy practice, a management role, and dedication to his family (he and his wife Tracey just welcomed their first grandchild in September), Stephenson is on hiatus from swimming again. Temporarily.
“If you want to compete at the world championships, you’ve got to start training hard a year in advance,” Stephenson says. “It’s more of a mental discipline that every day, even if you’re traveling, you’ve got to find a pool somewhere and get in your swimming mileage. … You have to squeeze it in and it’s a significant amount of time and effort.”
“In both swimming and in trial work the competition is down the road,” he adds. “So if there’s a brand new case, the trial is going to be a year out or two years out, and you have to prepare for it starting on day one, with the end result in mind, with the end goal in mind. It’s the same with swimming. You have to put in the yardage a year in advance and 11 months in advance and 10 months in advance. You have to have a goal. Then you have to have a plan for achieving that goal and then you have to take a million small steps every single day in order to implement the plan and achieve the goal.”
“What really drives me is achieving something,” he says. “I’ve won some big cases and there’s a lot of satisfaction that goes along with that.”
Like Angela’s case.
Angela can’t apply for a green card until her role as a potential material witness in the sex-trafficking prosecution is over, but when it is, Stephenson will be there to help her. “It’s going to change her life,” he says.
Angela now lives with a foster family in Michigan, has close friends, and will graduate from high school this spring. Stephenson hopes that Angela’s grandmother, with whom she now talks regularly via phone or Skype, will be able to come to the U.S. to see the ceremony.