A People’s Lawyer
How Margo Grubbs went from policing to defending the underdog
Published in 2023 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine
By Carol Tice on December 20, 2022
In 1974, Margo Grubbs was a recent Northern Kentucky University graduate who had given birth to a son when she was 17, was in the process of getting a divorce, and needed to find a way to support her child.
Grubbs had also just come out as gay. Given the mores of the times, she knew teaching was out. So instead, she walked over from her campus-bookstore job to the office next door, where she became the first woman hired as a campus public safety officer with the NKU Public Safety and Police department.
It was mere happenstance. “But as I did the job,” she says, “I found I liked it.”
During her three years with the department, she attended the Kentucky Law Enforcement’s 10-week officers training program, Southern Police Institute’s crime-prevention training, then spent two years as a commonwealth detective for 16th District Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
Grubbs was uniquely equipped for a role that included visiting grisly crime scenes and dealing with dead bodies. Her family–which has resided in nearby Boone County since the late 1700s—owned a funeral home.
She enjoyed the challenge and variety of police work, from helping solve a major computer theft on campus to finding the perpetrators of rapes and other violent crimes. But she was often the lone woman on the job.
“Everywhere I went, from the mid- to late-1970s,” she recalls, “I was the token woman.”
As she rose through the ranks, Grubbs wanted to become a police chief, and realized an advanced degree would help. She found a nearby law school that offered night courses.
For Grubbs, this was “a very difficult and hurtful time. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it.” Her mom had a difficult time accepting that she had a gay daughter. It took a year and a half for her to come around, but soon, Grubbs’ parents became her main support system for making the life changes she sought. Her parents helped out with child care as she juggled work and law school, graduating from Salmon P. Chase College of Law in 1979.
Preparing cases for trial as a detective had given her a taste of the court system. And by the time she graduated, she realized the odds of becoming a gay female police chief in the 1970s were slim. To top it off, she was too short to meet the height requirement for the state police, a typical steppingstone to the top job.
Her next choice was to become a prosecutor–so she asked a family friend who was a chief prosecutor to lunch. She told him about her aspirations.
“My parents had known this man since he was a little boy,” she says. “He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘But you’re not one of the boys.’ So I became a public defender and tried cases against him.”
She built her reputation taking on the “underdog cases” she was able to get as a female lawyer at the time. “I sometimes took cases nobody else wanted,” she says.
That included a 1991 civil case for a man with AIDS who alleged police brutality.
Steve O’Banion was beaten by police, who claimed he had tried to kill them by spitting his infected blood at officers. Grubbs represented him in a civil suit against the city of Cincinnati and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. They lost a trial against the sheriff’s office, but the city settled for $5,000.
“I’m a people’s lawyer,” she says, summing up her mission. “I help people.”
In August 2022, Grubbs was honored by the North Kentucky Bar Association as a local industry legend and trailblazer for women’s rights. While she worked at other firms briefly, she has spent most of her career in her own practice: 20 years at Grubbs & Landry in Fort Mitchell, focusing on criminal defense, civil injury and divorce cases.
“I could never work for the boys for very long,” she says.
Grubbs’ Lessons for Lawyers From Police Work
What did Grubbs learn as an officer that’s helped her as a lawyer? Here are her top takeaways:
Know your Ps & Ps: Grubbs’ knowledge of the policies and procedures police are supposed to use at crime scenes and during arrests helps her find flaws she can use in cross-examining officers on the witness stand.
Check your prejudice: “I knew that police officers had some prejudice against certain kinds of people,” she says. This knowledge helps her spot situations in which police may have been biased in their treatment of an arrested or charged offender.
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