Bravehearts In Long Beach
Two powerful women have joined their lives and careers together and have taken the legal system of California by storm, making it their own. Audrey (Stephanie) Luftin and Rebecca (Reba) Birmingham have dedicated their lives to helping the underdog. They work to educate and to help battered women, advising them in finding legal ways to force their abusers to support their children. They help children remain with their parents, no matter the parent’s sexual preference. And they help protect and uphold the civil and personal self-esteem rights of lesbians, gay men and other members of the LGBTQ community.
Following their company’s motto, Finding Simple Solutions to Life’s More Complex Problems, Long Beach Law, Inc., has won a number of kudos since it was established in the early 90s. Many high profile cases have passed through their doors, including a case in which police enforcement may have unfairly targeted gay men in public restrooms, a case defending a church from a pastor who may not have had the church’s best interests in mind and a case defending a bisexual father when a conservative babysitter filed to take custody of his son because of his sexual orientation.
Both women readily admit that they specialize in unusual, sometimes tough cases. They call them intertwo esting cases. These cases, though intriguing, are a bit less interesting than the outgoing, married lawyers at Long Beach Law.
Stephanie moved to California in 1980 after attending school at UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso, where she studied finance and real estate. In 1997, she was named Pro Bono lawyer of the year for the Long Beach area, mostly for her work with battered women at Rainbow Services in San Pedro.
After settling in Long Beach, Stephanie was in the first graduating class of the Long Beach Citizens Police Academy. She, along with Reba, has persisted in working to support a dozen or so local causes, such as working in the Legal Clinic at the Gay and Lesbian Center, working with the Long Beach AIDS Foundation, volunteering in local churches and serving on the Long Beach Police Chief’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Group and the task force that ensures fairness to gays and lesbians.
Reba graduated in 1997 from Pacific Coast University as the class valedictorian. Though she works with many of the same groups as Stephanie does, her work with Long Beach Law is mostly concerned with step-parent adoption, probate and estate planning. She joined Long Beach Law in 1998, after the firm was founded by Stephanie. The two eventually married during the “142 days of Equality” in 2008.
Reba was also co-counsel in 2008 with Lambda Legal, in the precedent setting Ellis vs. Arriaga case.
In this case, Darrin Ellis learned, after breaking up with his partner, David Arriaga, that he was denied protection under the “putative spouse doctrine” and would not receive a fair division of the couple’s property. Reba, along with Lambda Legal, worked to ensure and confirm that California’s domestic partner law was intended to provide domestic partners equal treatment under the law. They appealed the original ruling and argued that the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2003 should be construed to recognize putative domestic partners, and that denying domestic partners these primary protections violates equal protection principles.
Yet one more interesting fact about Stephanie and Reba is that they argue. A lot. But as they point out, isn’t that what lawyers do best? Talking to them is like listening to a verbal game of ping pong. There’s no rancor evident; they seem to simply love a good debate. This love of arguing may be what has won their firm a positive client flow during the past two decades. That and the fact that they work very hard at what they do. They also play hard, loving to travel and see other cultures and climes whenever they have some time off. Unfortunately, this love of travel caused Stephanie to suffer a bout of mosquito-borne illness this year, encephalitis and meningitis. It has been a rough illness but she vows she is on the mend. Nothing seems to get this organized-from-birth, eldest child down for long. She even once rode the mechanical bull at Gilley’s Club near Houston, Texas and lived to tell about it.
Reba cheerfully tells why Stephanie became a lawyer: She wanted to be president and noted that they were usually generals or lawyers. That general gig was harder to come by, so lawyer it was.
I caught up with the legal mavens as they were wrestling for a habeas corpus in a domestic dispute case.
NB: Tell me, in your opinion, what is the most important aspect of your business? What makes it special?
Stephanie Loftin: The people. Many come in powerless and leave with hope. They gain control.
Reba Birmingham: I agree. The people. They come to us in pain and they leave with hope. They’ve been through a drama, some trauma, something has happened to them.
SL: That’s our greatest joy. Helping them find empowerment.
RB: And we hope that in better times they will come back to us in laughter. Laughter makes the best lines on your face. Don’t you think so?
NB: I do, but no lines are even better. So is that why you went into law? To help people. Or are you in love with precedent and studying law?
RB: Oh, that’s not her, I can tell you that. She would rather read murder mysteries.
SL: Helping people. That’s why I love what I do.
NB: Your firm recently moved into new law offices and hosted an open house. How did it go?
RB: To understand how satisfying it was, you have to know what came before. We spent eleven months in a 56 x 12 foot trailer with six people! This is our third law office move since 1997. What made it different was buying a restaurant and turning it into a law office. Stephanie and I were driving around Long Beach looking at potential spaces and just fell in love with this old building. It was a challenge, and if we knew a year and a half ago what we know now I don’t know if we wouldn’t have done it. BUT, we’re so glad we did.
SL: Didja tell her the party was a Thursday and we still didn’t have a kitchen the day before?
RB: It’s true, they were installing the kitchen because our friend who was catering it said she had to have an oven!
NB: Why did you feel the need to move to a new facility?
RB: We only owned a part of our last building, and when partners needed to sell we decided to reboot. The place had to be re-imagined and we engaged a fabulous local architect, Meg Beatrice.
NB: In 2008 your firm made law with a published case for Darrin Ellis. Have you had many other high profile LGBT cases?
RB: Actually, we had the case at the trial court level, and co-counseled with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. They are amazing attorneys and it was an honor to work with them. We have had several cases that ended up in the news. One time I had 20/20 on one line and one of the other news shows trying to break in, and had to hold a press conference. That was a case in Orange County where the conservative babysitter filed for guardianship of a gay man’s son. We actually had a case where “Reverend Fred Phelps” picketed.
NB: What is your philosophy on helping the LGBT community of Long Beach ?
RB: They are us. And justice is Just Us sometimes. We are rich with leaders in this community and everyone plays a role… Lambda Democratic Club, The Gay and Lesbian Center, local activists, C.A.R.E. program, many amazing people. Our help just tends to be a little more on the legal side.
NB: I understand that helping battered women is an important part of your practice. How have you worked with them?
RB: Stephanie started a pro bono legal clinic at Rainbow Battered Women’s Shelter in San Pedro years ago. I started just as the Shelter was transitioning from volunteer to paid staff, but got to see her in action. She would teach people how to navigate the legal system and get them to laugh. You would be surprised, sadly, at the amount of domestic violence in LGBT and in all communities.
NB: You did a beach cleanup– Campaign Of the Community Beach Clean-Up. What types of community activities are important to you and why?
RB: We volunteer at the Legal Clinic at the Gay and Lesbian Center. Stephanie’s done it since the early nineties, I have since I started working for her in 1998. She and I have both won Pro Bono of the Year awards and are past presidents of Women Lawyers of Long Beach. I mentored a woman with six kids who had just been released from prison through the Volunteers in Parole program. Over the years we have served on the Gay and Lesbian Center Board, Stephanie did two terms about a decade apart. She was an Alcohol Commissioner for the County of Los Angeles for years and now sits on the Board of the Atlantic Alano Club. I was on the Board of Trustees at AIDSWALK under Ellen Ward and then later helped the Long Beach AIDS Foundation get their charter, serving on their first board. I am currently the Chancellor for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, which is an open and affirming church. We were both on the Police Chief’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Group, and Stephanie was in the first Citizen’s Academy. We have sold raffle tickets and decorated floats and really just had a lot of fun working on this committee or that. There is so much to do in Long Beach.
NB: You are very busy women. Can you define life and work? Or do they merge into life is work and work is life?
RB: It just all flows together. Time is flying, or as we say in law, Tempest Fugit.
RB: Yes. We had a client who died in jail when personnel failed to medically treat him. Stephanie had gone to court four separate times to get orders to give him basic care. They were all ignored, and he left a wife and child. It haunts me. When I hear that song by Linkin Park “It doesn’t even matter” I think about him, it reminds me there is much work to be done.
NB: Where did you grow up? Can you tell me a little about your family life?
RB: I grew up in Bellflower and Downey, but my folks are from the South. Stephanie was born in Chattanooga, Tenn, and grew up the South. Perhaps this explains our fondness for fried food.
NB: You have matching emerald rings. What does the stone signify for you two?
RB: We had the best wedding ever during the “summer of love” in 2008. We ran to the lesbian owned Phoenix and Crow at the last minute before the wedding, it was impulse and we both like the color. We also both have Scottish ancestry.
NB: What are you currently enjoying on television?
RB: I annoy Stephanie with my cop shows, love Simon Baker on the Mentalist. Starting to like Burn Notice which is quirky. Stephanie reads.
SL: I read murder mysteries or whatever I’m into at the time. It changes.
NB: Do you listen to NPR and what is your favorite segment?
KPCC out of Pasadena. . . “Wait, wait don’t tell me” makes me laugh. I love Paula Poundstone.
NB: Do you have children?
Yes, my son is an amazing man who I am sure will be president after Stephanie. He is working in Government Relations in San Diego and is just a really good human.
NB: Pets? Please tell me about them.
RB: OMG. Stephanie would have a pygmy Hippo if I, and the city, let her. She is considering chickens because the zoning is changing. Currently, we have two fantastic lion headed bunnies, three cats and many many fish.
NB: How do you plan to bring in the New Year 2013?
RB: Assuming we all survive December 21st? Too soon to tell.
NB: If you could live in a TV show, which would it be and why?
RB: We DO live in a reality TV show, its just not on television. I do tease Stephanie about “Harry’s Law” and made her watch one or two. Our building does have a bell tower, how many law firms can claim that?
NB: Who would you vote for to be the first president of the earth?
RB: My wife.
SL: I’d make a lot of changes. People would have to get along a lot better that they do.
NB: What would your first act as a world leader be?
RB: Get rid of all of the bombs, guns, nukes, and weapons of any kind. Then I would put women in charge.
NB: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done?
RB: Like we’re going to print that. We did parachute out of a plane for my fortieth birthday.
RB: Living in two places, someplace where we can enjoy nature a bit more, then come back and be in Long Beach.
NB: What would you be doing if you weren’t a lawyer?
RB: I would be a writer of novels, and traveling. Stephanie would probably be a tour guide, or run the earth.
NB: What would you most like to change about yourself or your life?
RB: A little less stress would be nice.
NB: What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?
RB: One day I thought I saw my friend J.D. in Probate Court. J.D. is bald, and was looking down at papers in his lap. I was having a tough day and to make us both laugh I rubbed his shiny pate and said “I heard it was good luck to rub a bald man’s head.” The man looked up and it was not my friend. He turned red but showed great grace.
NB: Who would you like to play you in a film of your life?
RB: Stockard Channing.
NB: Who is the coolest person you have ever gotten to meet related to law?
RB: Molly Ivins at a California Women Lawyer’s Dinner.
NB: What hobbies do you enjoy when you have down time?
RB: Down time? I was a folk singer prior to law, I played my guitar and sang at our opening since we had a captive audience.
SL: Tennis. Scuba diving. Riding motorcycles. I’m also a travelaholic. When I have some minutes, I go and sit on standby at United.
NB: I understand Stephanie’s niece is getting married next May.
RR: YES we have a terrific family living in Idaho and Stephanie’s niece has asked to use our wedding dresses for her wedding. We sent them and said hack them, cut them and design something that is you. Its just material. We feel very honored that she is wanting to wear what we wore on our special day.
NB: Tell me why all lawyers are so different
RB: We view lawyering as truly “counselor at law”. There are no cookie cutter solutions or you would not have come to us. We try to listen and get a sense of who you are and what you really want to have happen. Then, we apply our experience and technical knowledge of the law. People are drawn (called?) to be lawyers for many different reasons. Some seek what they perceive to be power after being victimized. Some see it as their fastest path to riches. Some are intrigues by puzzles and intellectual challenges. There are as many motivations as there are people. Different types of law match these desires. For example, you would not hire a securities litigation specialist to handle your temporary restraining order. We always say lawyers and their clients usually match and that chemistry makes a good team.
NB: Finally, why do people make so many jokes about lawyers?
RB: Because we tend to see extremes in the newspaper about spilled coffee and ridiculous verdicts. There is a lot of truth in humor and any profession where humans have an opportunity to show their worst and best sides is rich fodder.
All those folks who live near Long Beach can now rest assured. With Birmingham and Loftin on patrol, any feudal lords who try to rule in Southern California should be forewarned. They need to behave themselves and pay attention to those pesky civil rights. The lawyers are watching.