Volunteerism is the foundation of Beth Kushner’s career
Published in 2019 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine on November 14, 2019
The years Beth Kushner has spent handling business, employment and antitrust disputes, fraud and RICO cases, and class actions of all sorts, is only part of her story. Since graduating law school in 1979, Kushner has also performed a wide variety of humanitarian and pro bono legal work.
“When you have a background of privation, and you see how people can be able to make a better life, I think it is natural to want to help people who are underserved,” says Kushner, 66.
Her grandparents emigrated from Russia to the United States with little money and no ability to speak English. Kushner was born in Boston but moved 18 times before the age of 21, spending time in some of the worst school systems in the country, she says.
She battled dyslexia, aspired to be a horse jockey and got a theater scholarship to a Missouri college, eventually getting her B.A. from UW-Milwaukee. She then wound up in law school at the University of Virginia, where an upper-class student wrote on Kushner’s first evaluation that she “should be taller to be more effective.”
“I said, ‘We’ll see about that,’” Kushner says.
“I wasn’t the kid who did everything right—who [went to] all the right schools and who took all the right classes and did all the right activities and then got all the right jobs,” she says. “I was exactly the opposite, and it seems to have worked out OK.”
Humanitarian work has been a part of her career since moving back to Milwaukee.
She has worked on LGBTQ issues and housing discrimination cases. She’s assisted Holocaust survivors. She even worked on the Votomatic litigation after Bush v. Gore.
“I was part of the group that was able to get an injunction of the use of those voting machines. The lead counsel asked me to help, and I’m not very good at saying no,” she says. “I learned that, sometimes, when the government isn’t working the way it should, litigation will correct it. It was successful.”
In 1997, Kushner received the Gene and Ruth Posner Foundation Pro Bono Award for assisting Russian and Eastern European immigrants. Currently, she’s looking for more opportunities to help immigrants. The clients were referred to her by a rabbi and family friend, who saw that they were being taken advantage of by landlords and victimized by thefts and discrimination.
The humanitarian work usually finds its way to her. As with the rabbi, it’s usually informal: Other attorneys from around the country reach out; or her physician husband sees patients in need of legal help. On a formal level, Kushner is her firm’s pro bono liaison for the Eastern and Western Districts of Wisconsin, a position she says helps her ensure pro bono cases referred by the federal courts are handled well.
Kushner says she is drawn to helping people who are facing adversity and trying to overcome huge hurdles—much like her family did. “How can you have a life like I’ve had and not be conscious of how fortunate that is?” she says. “So many people don’t have the help.”
She has volunteered extensively with brain trauma, hospice and dementia patients. She trained a therapy dog and, for years, worked with patients at a local hospital. If not for her dyslexia, Kushner says she likely would have gone to medical school. “I find the human mind to be fascinating,” Kushner says.
Kushner’s desire to help has even extended overseas. After traveling to Africa and befriending a travel guide, she got involved with conservation causes and is paying for the education of a woman in Botswana.
Within the legal community, she has made a point to mentor younger lawyers, pushing them to find their own voices rather than mimic others. In 2002, three mentees nominated Kushner for the Association of Women Lawyers’ Mentoring Award, which she won.
In 2014, Kushner was one of three people nominated by Sens. Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin to become a federal district court judge, a position that eventually went to Pamela Pepper. Kushner says she was flattered by the honor, adding: “They picked the best person.”
Being in the mix for a presidential appointment as a federal judge was just another part of a life she says would be unimaginable to her grandparents—or even to her younger self.
“For somebody that never planned anything, or tried to make this be anything,” Kushner says, “it kind of happened in a nice way.”