The Writing's On the Wall

The signs that guided Jennifer Salvatore to open her own employment and civil rights firm

Published in 2019 Michigan Super Lawyers — August 22, 2019

Jennifer Salvatore was at Northville High School in the ’80s, she caught mono and was sidelined from the varsity soccer team for a month. She wanted back on the field, but her mother said it was too soon. So Salvatore pulled out a pen and began to write. The letter, detailing multiple reasons why she should be allowed back on the field, spanned four full pages. 

The last lines read: “I’m of absolutely no use to [the team] now. I can’t stand to sit there while everyone else plays.”

She didn’t win the battle, but it was a fitting prelude to the knockout fights of greater magnitude that Salvatore—now an employment and civil rights attorney at Salvatore Prescott & Porter—would win in the decades to follow.

“Even as a child, I had a strong sense of moral indignation about injustices, big or small in the world,” she says, “and a desire to help—to be on the side of either exposing them or righting them.”

That desire is apparent in her Northville office. Outside the conference room doors is a framed sheet of suffragette songs. Above her desk upstairs hangs a print of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And behind her, stretching nearly floor to ceiling in the conference room, is a massive copy of Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With.

“It’s a reminder to us about why we do this work—and a reminder to our clients about the brave girl, Ruby Bridges, who came before them, and other people throughout history who have stood up and done the right thing,” says Salvatore. “It’s also to remind our staff that the work is rooted in something that’s bigger than money or professional success.”

Salvatore founded the firm in 2016, alongside Sarah Prescott and Julie Porter. They tackle cases on sexual harassment, gender discrimination, employment and civil rights issues, among others. Before she would become Salvatore’s law partner, Porter recalls going on a hike together and discussing cases. 

“I was so proud of her because the work that she was doing was important,” Porter says. “It gave me a window into another way of doing private practice that I hadn’t really considered for myself. I was very struck by her compassion for her clients—by how hard she was working to effect change, not just for her individual clients, but to help make our world a better place.”

 

Salvatore grew up a mile from Northville’s main drag, where Salvatore Prescott & Porter now stands on a quaint street lined with brick buildings. She had a close relationship with her grandmother, Anna Perry, who worked her way up to an executive secretary after humble beginnings washing dishes at Detroit’s Cadillac Hotel. Perry always wore a dress and heels, and Salvatore can’t help but speculate how her life would have been different if she’d been a man.

Salvatore straddled that divide, seeing at once how much opportunity lies ahead and how many injustices still constrain women. “I wanted to be part of helping change, even though there's been so much change,” she says. “But there are still lots of areas in which those issues exist.”

While her grandmother helped shape her worldview, her uncle, Larry Beyersdorf, shaped her view of the law. He’d spent decades as a public defender in Southern California, and when she visited extended family in San Diego over breaks, she’d spend afternoons in court with him. By the time Salvatore was shadowing him in high school, Beyersdorf was representing people up against the death penalty.

“My only framework for what a lawyer is was him: somebody who represented people at the worst time in their life when nobody else would stand by them,” Salvatore recalls. “They didn't even have money to hire a lawyer.”

A passion began to percolate, thanks to those trips. “The law kind of sucks you in,” says Beyersdorf, who retired in 2012. “A lot of times you don’t realize it’s happening. A lot of times you’re not even sure you’re going to be a lawyer. And then, all of a sudden, you are.”

 

At Miami University in Ohio, Salvatore studied political science and journalism, thinking she’d become a reporter. In her senior year, she applied to be editor of her college newspaper. But she still had interest in the law, so when she didn’t get the job, Salvatore shifted paths. ”It’s kind of scary how random life sometimes turns out,” she says with a laugh. 

She headed to law school at the University of Michigan, where she was part of the first all-female team to make it to the finals of the prestigious appellate Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition. The topic of debate: Whether school districts should be held responsible under Title IX for peer-on-peer sexual harassment. “It was pivotal in terms of my confidence, in terms of being able to be a litigator,” Salvatore says. 

Before graduating, she spent a semester with the ACLU in Los Angeles. She worked under Mark Rosenbaum, the group’s long-time legal director, and helped file a suit challenging the state’s ban on affirmative action that passed that fall.  

“It was so interesting and exciting,” she says. “I hadn’t been part of anything like that, this larger-impact litigation that was being brought to try to influence public policy.”

But a job offer from Jenner & Block in Chicago was in the back of her mind. It was a good move, Rosenbaum told her; they had the resources and talent to teach her the foundational skills she’d need to be an excellent trial lawyer. So Salvatore took the leap. “He was right,” she says.

In 1999, two years after joining the firm as an associate, she was selected to be the first Polikoff-Gautreaux Fellow at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) in Chicago. It was a huge jump: A six-figure salary became $37,000, she says. “My parents were like, ‘Why would you go?!’ But I wanted to roll my sleeves up and be in the trenches with public-interest issues, and that’s what they were doing. It wasn’t about the money.”

Through BPI, she helped start the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago, an all-girls public high school founded to help underserved girls on the city’s South Side. A coalition of groups Salvatore usually aligned with—including the ACLU and National Organization for Women—planned to sue over the school opening, arguing it could not exclude boys and be a public school. The suit was never filed, but Salvatore crafted a defense and debated the ACLU over the program’s merits. “It made me realize how much I wanted to do work around gender equality,” she says.

Because Jenner & Block gave her credit toward partnership while she was away, Salvatore came back as a fourth-year associate. “They were incredibly supportive of my desire to live in both worlds,” she says, “which is how I’ve always been: between the public interest and the private sector.”

As Salvatore progressed toward making partner, she spotted a pattern: Women were rarely up for partner in her litigation group. “Not because they didn’t want to make women partners,” she says, “but no women had even stayed seven years in that group to be up for partner.”

Salvatore spoke with the female associates, who largely wrote briefs and prepared witnesses. “We realized that, compared to our male colleagues, we weren’t getting the same trial experiences,” she says.

The group took its findings to the senior leadership. They responded that they’d supported maternity leave and part-time work for female associates who had kids. “That’s not even what we’re talking about,” Salvatore says, remembering her frustration. “We’re actually asking for more demanding responsibilities. … It was a very eye-opening experience, because they were wonderful men; they were mentors to me and helped develop my career. But there was a disconnect between what we were seeing and what their explanation was for it.”

It was “a big-law issue,” not one specific to the firm, she says. Still, she began to wonder whether she should stay. Then she got pregnant with her first child, Lucie. The firm offered to find ways Salvatore could still make partner, but the timing felt right to move closer to home. 

She chose a firm that was good for work-life balance and intersected her interest in civil rights work (representing Native American tribal nations), and honing her writing skills on appellate cases.

The firm shared a space with David Nacht, a plaintiff-side employment attorney. Nacht invited Salvatore to help him on a sexual discrimination case, and everything clicked. A year and a half later, the two sat down for lunch. 

“David said to me, ‘People like you and me, we have the education and ability to do exactly what you want to do in the law,’” Salvatore recalls. “‘There’s no reason you should settle for something that checks five of the 10 boxes on your list.’

“I really realized this is what I should be doing,” she says.

The next day, Salvatore called Nacht and pitched him on hiring her to help expand his gender discrimination practice. He agreed, and she worked there for the next 11 years.

Early on, Nacht says he found that Salvatore had a unique ability to anticipate changes in the law as well as understand the human dynamics of workplace relationships. “Jen manages to combine these two very different skill sets,” he says. “And that’s what makes her exceptional.”

Just a year after joining the firm, Salvatore represented Terry Gorski, who had just been fired, along with four other women over the age of 40, from a biotech company, despite being among its leading sales representatives. It was clear they were dropped because of their age and gender, Gorski recalls. “I was the sole breadwinner in my family. I had two young kids. So this was devastating for me. Jennifer took up my cause. She was my champion.”

Salvatore was itching to be a trial lawyer, and this was the first in which she took the lead. Emotions were running high. “It was four or five months after my second child had been born,” she says. “It was a very stressful and incredibly impactful experience.”

The case went to trial in 2006. They lost. “It was surreal,” Gorski says. “I was more disappointed for Jen and my team, because I know how hard they fought for me.” 

“The trial went really well in many ways,” Salvatore says. But the result: “It was devastating.”

A few years later, Salvatore represented Linda Everson, an African American woman dating a white Battle Creek police officer who she says sexually assaulted her. He wasn’t convicted, and a year later, Everson began speaking out, questioning the extent of the investigation. The county arrested her for filing a false police report. Salvatore represented her in a First Amendment retaliation case, challenging her arrest. “It was not even about the money for her; it was about clearing her name,” Salvatore says of her client, who had moved to Texas after the fallout. 

It took five years but, in the end, the jury came back with a $1.1 million verdict. “I told her story and helped amplify her voice—so she could be heard, so the system could work,” Salvatore says.

 

Years after her multi-page brief on playing soccer with mono, Salvatore wrote another note that would serve as a harbinger of things to come. She recently rediscovered it in a journal—something she, Porter and another friend had knocked around while they were in law school: starting an all-women law firm. 

Now the firm is up to 11 attorneys, and Salvatore continues to take on cases that are meaningful to her. She’s part of a suit against the Michigan Department of Corrections for housing juvenile prisoners in the same cell as adults, and is representing two victims in the second wave of sexual assault litigation against Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar. 

“It’s one of many examples of how sexual assault issues through the legal system—and culturally and socially—in the last couple of years are being given appropriate recognition in terms of the harm that it causes to women and how prevalent it is to victims in all walks of life and all ages, in all settings,” Salvatore says.

And she’s doing it all under her own banner.

“I still feel like I'm pinching myself. I cannot believe this is how my life has turned out.” 

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