Reflecting with Marie-Joëlle Khouzam

To this Columbus lawyer, it’s all about listening before jumping in

Published in 2018 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2018

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

You know a building is venerated when its name refers to its age—twice. Marie-Joëlle Khouzam works in The Old, Old Post Office, a Romanesque Revival masterpiece built in downtown Columbus in 1887, then expanded in 1912. Several offices in the building, occupied by Bricker & Eckler since 1984, feature walk-in vaults with spin dials. On the third floor, Khouzam shows off a jail cell hardly big enough to hold a cot. A set of handcuffs dangles from the iron bars. “We put our misbehaving clients in there,” she jokes.

The real joke is the idea that she’d have a confrontation with a client, because Khouzam is a master at listening long before she weighs in. 

A management-side employment attorney, Khouzam’s tools are reflection and discussion, which she puts to use while counseling employers on everything from handling discrimination claims to dealing with the eventual implementation of the state’s medical marijuana law.

Khouzam has become well-versed in the latter issue, which has become a concern to Ohio employers since the state Legislature passed a 2016 law permitting adults with a variety of health conditions—21 in all—to use medical marijuana. She gives Bar and industry group speeches with titles like “O-High-O: Workplace Considerations of Marijuana Legalization.” Her clients work in industries ranging from health care to education; the service sector to technology.

“What I really love doing is advising clients, helping them be proactive,” says Khouzam. “I like the term ‘counselor and adviser’ rather than ‘lawyer;’ I don’t know why we got away from using those terms.”

Fellow employment lawyer Kimberly Callery Shumate, an associate vice president in the office of human resources at Ohio State University, says those terms apply to Khouzam. “She is incredibly empathetic and a real problem-solver,” says Shumate. “She’s not like, ‘Let me fix that for you,’ but, ‘Let me help you get to the answer that will help you best.’ That takes some true counseling skills, as well as legal skills, to get people to understand what is in their best interest and then help them get there.” 

Khouzam says it helps that clients have become more pragmatic. “They understand it’s not about winning, or principles, every time,” she says. “It’s also about what is the best way to treat people consistently and fairly.”

 

On her phone, Khouzam has saved a family portrait of herself at age 3, a grin stretching from ear to ear, on a Sunday trip with her parents to visit the Temple of Jupiter. The Roman Empire-era structure is located in the Lebanese town of Baalbek, in the Bequaa Valley. 

Khouzam grew up in Beirut, where she went to a Catholic church and attended a German school. “My parents were a little eclectic and believed in education,” says Khouzam, who is fluent in three languages and knows a smattering of three others. Her family spoke French at home. This was in the years immediately before civil war broke out in 1975, when Beirut was a luxurious global vacation spot—a glamorous coastal city with a lively intellectual scene. “It was a beautiful, beautiful place,” she says. “It is a very small country; you could go from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains in a short trip.” 

Her father was an architect in Beirut. “I have fond recollections of growing up there,” she recalls. “There were lots of trips to the beach, sledding, skiing, and hiking in the mountains. Definitely good times. Everything centered around family Sunday dinner with grandparents.”

However, there were signs of unrest, and her extended family left Beirut when she was 8. “We were the last ones [in the family] out of Lebanon, but the move wasn’t made in panic,” she says. As tensions were mounting, Khouzam’s father had looked into employment overseas; he visited childhood friends who lived in Toledo and got some job offers while there. 

“It’s a great place to raise a family,” Khouzam says. “Toledo doesn’t necessarily have all the bells and whistles of metropolitan cities, but it is a solid and grounded place.”

Multiculturalism wasn’t something that needed to be encouraged there; it was—and still is—a part of life in Toledo. “You don’t think of diversity as a buzzword there; everybody just comes from someplace else,” she explains. “There will be a Hungarian festival one weekend and a Jamaican one the next, and you enjoyed them all, without thinking in a political context.” 

Even today, Khouzam defines herself as the product of an overlay of cultures. “Honestly, I often think I’m sort of caught in a culture-chasm. I definitely feel American and like I’ve become Americanized in many ways, but I still value so many, many things my family valued,” she says. Chief among them: religious and culinary traditions, as well as “doing pretty much anything for family, even when it would be easier to say no or ‘not again.’” 

 

The route to a legal career was about as long as the one from Beirut to Toledo. The law was never an option talked about in her house, and she majored in German and political science as an undergraduate at Bowling Green, graduating in 1985. A Fulbright scholarship led her to Austria, where she studied the political structure of the divided country post-World War II. 

Khouzam applied for a State Department job, anticipating the launch of a diplomatic career with the Foreign Service. Meantime, she took a job as a paralegal at a global firm that was undergoing circumstances, including divestment, that led to responsibility beyond the normal duties for Khouzam.

“At some point, working with so many lawyers, I had a light bulb moment,” she says. “This is not rocket science; it’s interesting, and you have to work hard”—she snaps her fingers—“but I could see going through law school and getting good at this.” What appealed to her was the problem-solving aspect, taking seemingly huge tasks and systematically breaking them down. “What’s that saying about ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’” She graduated from the University of Toledo’s law school in 1991.

Khouzam’s first full-time law job was with Emens, Hurd, Kegler and Ritter in Columbus, where she handled workers’ comp claims for three years. She worked for 18 years at Carlile Patchen & Murphy, then moved to Bricker three years ago.

In the early days, says Shumate, “Columbus had a Bar more progressive [than average] about accepting women and encouraging them to excel, but it was still difficult. She really did quite a lot to earn her place in her firm and in her area of the profession. … You have to be truly excellent when you are one of the few, and she met that standard easily.”

Khouzam’s office in the Old, Old Post Office (the single-adjective Old Post Office was built much later) is high-ceilinged and filled with light, which pours in through wood-framed bay windows. Matisse paper cutout posters decorate the wall.

On her desk, Khouzam has a glass cube proclaiming, “Carpe that diem.” “My dad always said, ‘A second never comes back; neither does a minute, so don’t squander your time,’” she says. “And he was so right.” Khouzam stays involved in the community by sitting on numerous boards, taking on pro bono cases, and organizing food, book and clothing drives. Most of all, she keeps track of a field of law that is ever in transition.

Bill Nolan, with Barnes & Thornburg in Columbus, has known Khouzam for more than a dozen years. He calls her a “calming” influence. “There’s a very even demeanor, which is not always present in employment law—which can be very emotional on both sides,” he says. Nolan also praises her adaptability, an important quality in their practice area.

“One thing I like about employment law is that it is always developing,” he says. “Certainly, in the last 10 years, that’s probably been more the case.” The first law Barack Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to sue their employers for equal pay. Federal agencies aggressively enforced worker-friendly regulations, while states and municipalities passed progressive laws involving issues such as sexual orientation. But the landscape has shifted. “And now,” adds Nolan, “we are discussing what an employer can do when you find out one of your employees turns out to be a Nazi. Certainly, it’s an interesting time in the law.”

Khouzam looks at these interesting times as a chance to keep learning, as with the issue of medical marijuana. In Ohio, drug-free workplace regulations still prevail. Nothing in the law requires employers to permit medical marijuana use. 

“If an employee gets tested post-accident, or randomly, and tests positive,” Khouzam explains, “the employer can take whatever action it normally takes based on a positive test result, regardless of whether the marijuana was medically recommended or whether it was consumed off-duty—if the employer’s policy has been updated to reflect that MM is effectively tested the same as prescription substances that can impair one’s ability to safely perform their job.” 

The law has prompted many companies to update policies to clarify that medical marijuana continues to be among their prohibited substances.

“Depending on the type of work, there is risk associated in knowingly allowing use and having people potentially be impaired,” she says. “There is a limited amount of hard scientific data on the long-term effects out there right now, and there doesn't seem to be any dispute that marijuana use can affect brain functions like judgment, memory and the like.”

Khouzam has been working with clients on revising those employee handbooks; and explaining how an uptick in consumption may affect the ability to recruit workers who can pass pre-employment screens. “I think a mistake employers may fall victim to is whether or how to accommodate the underlying condition the person is using medical marijuana for,” she says. “If the employee says, ‘I’m not able to do my job without taking medical marijuana for the back pain I’m experiencing,’ the employer may not have to accommodate [the usage] but may have to accommodate the underlying condition.” She advises employers about the potential obligation to engage in an “interactive process” to determine whether any accommodation might be in order. Perhaps a worker with back pain, for instance, can take scheduled breaks. 

Khouzam sees her role as helping clients look at situations from all angles. “Often we commend leaders, whether political or community leaders, who make hard decisions [quickly]—being visionary, moving forward and leaving it up to other people to execute the details,” she says. “When I am advising clients and talking about potentially firing somebody, typically they’ve given it a lot of thought and considered how it will impact family and livelihood. … But sometimes clients just get tired of somebody and want to make a decision. You don’t want to change their mind, but you want to make sure they’ve thought it through, considered all of the pieces before they make those decisions.

“My goal is never to change their minds, but I want to make sure they understand with every decision comes some risk. At the end of the day, my job is to help them manage risk.”

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

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