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Leading the Charge

Meaningful change has always been Ruth Irvings’ goal, even if it’s via an estate plan

Photo by Hanna Agar

Published in 2020 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Andrew Brandt on November 17, 2020


When Ruth Irvings whisked away to college in 1968, she thought she’d been rescued. Having grown up in a well-to-do suburb on Long Island, the future attorney spent her teenage years feeling alienated by the self-centered pursuits of her peers and the materialist culture that defined the area’s adults.

“There was tremendous emphasis on academic achievement for the sake of getting into a good college, getting a good job. That’s not where my head was,” she says. “It was the 1960s, and I was looking at people—not that much older than I was—getting involved in voter-registration drives and desegregation marches. … I was interested in what was going on in the world, and being involved in making positive change. I was ready to go into a realm where I could find more like-minded people and take a more active part.”

Irvings found the experiences she’d been craving at Brandeis University, a liberal arts college just a stone’s throw east of Boston: protesting in support of the Black student takeover of the school’s administration building, participating in anti-war marches, and catching feminism’s second wave.

But there were lessons to be learned. In particular, she recalls a formative experience at a Vietnam War rally, where a group of feminists were calling out the anti-war movement for dismissing women’s roles.

“I was defending it,” says Irvings, “basically saying that the goal of ending the war in Southeast Asia was so overwhelmingly important that we couldn’t risk fracturing the unity by fighting for our individual rights within that movement. I remember saying to a woman, ‘I’m not a feminist.’ And she let me have it. I was sort of stunned. But I also realized: I am a feminist. And this does matter.”

Though the rally occurred decades before the term “intersectionality” was coined, Irvings began using the concept as her guiding framework: during the early days of her career representing abused women at what is now Legal Action of Wisconsin; while she blazed a trail in LGBTQ estate planning before marriage was a right; and through the alliances she continues to make as an activist in the Milwaukee area.

“You don’t have to give up your individual interests while advancing the broader interests of social justice,” Irvings says. “We gain more by looking at internal fairness.”

“Ruth has always stepped up to take the lead—in the legal profession, the civil rights struggles she’s worked on, and within her Jewish faith,” says Anne Henry, a Stanford Law School classmate and lifelong friend. “She’s willing to put herself out there and be a leader. She’s a very brave woman.”

At Brandeis, where Irvings graduated in 1972 with degrees in psychology and sociology, a professor pitched the idea of law school. While she wasn’t thrilled about the prospect, Irvings understood that the knowledge could be used as a tool to advance social justice issues. Plus, she was looking forward to the California weather that would accompany a stint at Stanford.

Once she arrived, the alienation Irvings felt in her youth again took hold. “Much of Stanford’s students and goals at that time were on training lawyers who would ultimately represent the interests of large corporations,” she says. “Lawyers were being groomed for jobs in the big law firms.”

Luckily, she made friends with similar interests—including Henry, who would spend 42 years at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center. Together, they helped bring the National Conference on Women and the Law to the university in their third year. “We had both come to law school to work for change, to try to make the world a better place,” Henry says. “That is not why everybody was going to law school at the time, and it was wonderful to have support.”

In the summer of ’73, Irvings was in D.C. for an externship involving juvenile mental health facilities with then-attorney Patricia Wald, when she came across a job listing for Legal Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit that provides free legal services for low-income people. A student seated next to Irvings hailed from Madison, and suggested she would love the Midwest. The following summer, she gave Milwaukee a shot.

Though Irvings was hoping to work in mental health, family law cases had the most need and are what she would focus her practice on into the ‘80s.

After earning her J.D. in 1975, Irvings settled in Milwaukee for good. It wasn’t long before she began moving up the ranks at Legal Action of Wisconsin. By the mid-’80s, Irvings was director of the entire operation, overseeing the organization’s work in 13 counties in Southeastern Wisconsin.

“It was far too early in my career, looking back on it,” she laughs. “What did I know about managing lawyers, which some have said is akin to herding cats? And this was a group of very independent lawyers, many of whose ideology was based on questioning authority. And here I was: authority. To say it was difficult and awkward at times would be an understatement.”

It was there that she met fellow attorney Amy Shapiro, her future wife. “I came for a job and I stayed for love,” Irvings says. “I said, ‘This person is worth staying for.’ And I was right, since she is sitting in the office down the hall.”

Perhaps Irvings’ lowest moment at Legal Action came during staff union negotiations. “I was sitting there saying, ‘What have I done to be in this position? Me, such a proponent of labor and workers’ rights, sitting here and getting chastised as oppressive management?’” she says.

Mostly, though, Irvings remembers the highlights: She and colleagues helped establish Milwaukee’s first hotline for abused women, and the state’s first women’s shelter, all in their spare time; and Legal Action helped initiate a large-scale pro bono project.

“We worked with the Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association to start the Volunteer Lawyers Project, which trained volunteer lawyers to represent low-income clients,” Irvings says, adding that she is now a volunteer for the Eviction Defense Project, which provides representation to low-income tenants in eviction court.

In the late ’80s, Irvings and Shapiro decided to expand their family. “The decision to openly raise children as a same-sex couple in Milwaukee was a pretty bold one,” Irvings says of her now 31- and 27-year-old boys, “but it’s one that is central to my other life and career decisions.”

By the early ’90s, Irvings was burned out and left Legal Action to care for her kids. After a one-year break, she joined Moertl, Wilkins & Campbell in 1992, and did so, mainly, as an estate planner. Though she was happy to be back in a saddle, it wasn’t always easy being in a different one.

“The feeling that I sometimes didn’t know what I was doing with estate planning cases was hard,” she says. “When you’re out of law school, not knowing what you’re doing comes with the territory. But having run Legal Action, to feel like I was on shaky ground …”

Irvings soon found her footing, and late in the decade left to form Nelson, Irvings & Waeffler (later Nelson, Irvings & Wessels) with two former Legal Action colleagues. During these years, she developed the niche she’s perhaps most known for: preparing estate plans for LGBTQ clients.

“It provided me with a community to whom I could provide something they couldn’t get elsewhere,” Irvings says. “I was out, to some extent, professionally, and I was in a long-term relationship raising two sons. I was sort of talking the talk and walking the walk.”

Since no other attorney in the Milwaukee area was so active in this line of work, Irvings was in demand with Wisconsin’s professional organizations. She spoke to CLEs and community groups, as well as local and specialty bar associations.

More importantly, though, “I could give my clients something akin to the legal situation that was bestowed on married couples by virtue of getting married,” she says. “We used powers of attorney, both health care and financial, to give a partner rights that a spouse would have by operation of law. I did a lot of partnership agreements for couples, particularly couples buying a house together, where there was very little legal framework on rights while they own the house together. The law that was in existence was really designed for either family members who owned farms or rental properties together, or business associates.”

Putting together a contract that created mutual rights and responsibilities and legal protections in the event of death or if the couple separated was, quite simply, a challenge. “We had to recreate elements of those three bodies of law in a contract that was appropriate for two people … who really didn’t want a 75-page agreement,” Irvings says. “I learned over the years from what happened when things went wrong, and I honed my agreements.”

In the early 2000s, Irvings became a board member for Fair Wisconsin, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ rights.

“I realized that the forces that were trying to hold back LGBTQ rights were the same ones holding back the rights of people of color, and that we had to work together,” she says. “I was acutely aware of making sure that the interests of women in the movement were protected and that the alliances—particularly with people of color—were advanced.”

Jason Rae, president and CEO of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, served on the board with Irvings after she introduced the idea at a coffeeshop in 2008. “Ruth is truly one of the best people I’ve gotten to work with. She has a genuine warmth,” he says, noting that Irvings quickly became both a friend and mentor. “We would carpool together when meetings were in Madison, and that was one of the things I looked most forward to: talking about what was going on in the world, getting her perspective and really growing as an individual.”

In 2008, Irvings’ advice was sought by Wisconsin’s legislative research bureau, which was in the process of writing the state’s domestic partnership act. Rae notes that Irvings was instrumental in eventually getting domestic partnership benefits through the state legislature in 2009.

“Domestic partnership was better than nothing, but it was so far from creating anything close to marriage equality,” Irvings says. “Many of us did it almost as a symbolic measure. We saw it in the LGBTQ movement as a first step. … [But] you could see tangible change, in terms of the social and political climate. It was the only time where I was on the ground level seeing what became national cataclysmic change.”

The change, of course, culminated in the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015. That day, Irvings was shopping for a pair of “sensible” work shoes and spotted a pair of Pikolinos boots. “I am still wearing those boots,” she says. “I call them my marriage equality boots. I bought them for myself as a present, and I love them dearly.”

Later that year, Irvings and Shapiro wed. “One of the biggest joys we got to share is that after much work on the issue of marriage equality, I got to attend Ruth and Amy’s wedding,” says Henry. “The culmination of incredible work—it was really joyful. Their sons were there, their families. The whole hall lifted off its foundation in joy.”

In 2006, tragedy struck the firm, when partner Alexandra Waeffler unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. Another former Legal Action attorney, Carol Wessels, was called in to handle the firm’s probate and guardianship cases. Wessels, now an elder law attorney at Wessels & Liebau in Mequon, notes that though it was an extremely difficult time, Irvings couldn’t have been more welcoming.

“There’s literally not a week that goes by that I don’t think how lucky I was to have Ruth as a business partner. I still ask her for advice and guidance,” she says. “She has consistently been someone who gives freely of guidance and mentorship and advice, and wants other women to succeed.”

The firm ended up amicably dissolving, and Irvings went solo in 2014—though she shares an office space in Milwaukee’s Third Ward with the attorneys at Hawks Quindel, where her wife works.

“I love to be able to plan proactively to avoid crises,” Irvings says of her current practice. “Having started my career doing family law, where the crisis is there, I like doing something where people are not at their worst, and where much of the time we are not in crisis mode. I really enjoy the financial and tax aspects, and I think I can make a connection with people when they talk to me. I can formulate something that they understand, and that suits them.

“It’s ironic, though,” she says with a laugh. “Our success as activists really cut the legs right out of my niche as an estate planner. It’s a good problem to have—that’s how I always describe it.”

Due to COVID-19, Irvings is mostly working from home these days, going into the office once a week to sign client documents. “Estate planning is essentially an office practice,” she says. “Other than meeting with clients, the rest of what I do is done pretty comfortably at home. I am fortunate.”

And Irvings’ activism hasn’t slowed down: She has initiated a social justice committee with her wife at their synagogue and taken on the role of chief inspector for the city of Milwaukee’s elections. This past June, she once again stepped out of her comfort zone by masking up and protesting the police killing of George Floyd.

“In the last five years, my interests have come back full circle to the racial and economic justice issues that really grabbed me personally as a high school student,” Irvings says. “It’s been a very, very exciting time. We have a level of political activism that I haven’t seen in years and years.”

“She really has lived her early commitments that we bonded over,” adds Henry. “She’s driven by her principles; she’s lived them.”

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