The Interpreter

Leto Copeley translates Spanish and the language of law

Published in 2010 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2010

Growing up in rural New Jersey, Leto Copeley had seen several outhouses in her lifetime, but nothing like the one in Los Terreros, Honduras.

“The door fell off and was replaced with a curtain, which was always blowing,” says the Chapel Hill attorney. “You had no privacy and the kids would all crowd around to see what you were doing. It was nasty.”

As an interpreter for the 2007 Medical Mission to Honduras—on behalf of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham and Raleigh’s Church of the Nativity—Copeley approached a community leader and asked what it would cost to improve the dilapidated latrine. The price tag: $500.

One week later, Copeley returned to the States and talked with her trip sponsors, who agreed to donate the money. Several months later, mission workers returned to find a new outhouse with running water and a flush toilet. “It was a real privilege to be able to make that happen,” she says.

Copeley learned the importance of service from her father, an osteopath, who carried his doctor bag house-to-house in the 1950s and ’60s. He traveled through a part of town where many were living in “pretty deplorable conditions,” she recalls. “My father taught me that everyone should be treated fairly.”

That conviction led her to Harvard Law School, a stint with the Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and eventually, a workers’ compensation practice at Patterson Harkavy. “It’s very rewarding when someone feels that circumstances are beyond his or her control and you are able to help them realize that there is something that can be done,” she says.

One of her most rewarding cases took seven years to resolve. Copeley represented a woman who had been sexually harassed by her racist-joke-telling employer, and was dismissed after complaining to superiors. “I spent a number of nights up until 2 or 4 o’clock in the morning writing briefs for that case,” she says. “It was quite grueling.” In the end, she obtained a satisfactory (confidential) settlement.

When not in court on these matters, Copeley volunteers with St. Philip’s Episcopal in Durham as a member of the vestry and sits on North Carolina’s Legal Aid board. She is also a past president of the American Civil Liberties Union in Charlotte. “It’s very important that all citizens, lawyers or not, protect the rights that the Founding Fathers gave us,” she says. “The ACLU is on the forefront of protecting those rights.”

She hopes to eventually protect such freedoms as a judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, a post for which she is currently campaigning. Her favorite part of being on the trail, she says, “is explaining to people what the court of appeals does and why it’s important, how this court issues decisions that affect people in all walks of their lives.” 

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