March 13, 2013
Zachary Stephenson '06 recently found his name on the Minnesota Lawyer's Attorneys of the Year list after representing LGBT students in a suit against their school district. The list, which usually honors attorneys for ensuring a positive outcome for the client, recognized Stephenson, along with attorneys working for both sides of the case. Stephenson and his colleagues helped to ensure a settlement that, according to the Minnesota Lawyer, saved everyone "the expense and headaches of a trial" while also protecting students from bullying and harassment.
Granted, when Stephenson started his pro bono work on the lawsuit, he didn't know that there would be laurels waiting at the end. All he knew was that if you were a gay high school student in 2010, you probably didn't want to enroll in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The district's neutrality policy on the issue of homosexuality prevented teachers from speaking out against anti-gay bullying, and after seven LGBT suicides, public health officials labeled the school district as a suicide contagion area.
Following on one of these suicides, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a suit against the school district in 2011, claiming that the institution had failed to put an end to repeated anti-gay bullying. The lawsuit set off an eight month process in which lawyers representing the school district, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, and LGBT students tried to settle their differences. Stephenson, along with other lawyers from his firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, proved himself to be not only a key part of the settlement process but a passionate citizen of the Anoka-Hennepin area.
"I grew up in Anoka-Hennepin schools," said Stephenson, "and a lot of the problems we worked on in the litigation were evident even when I was in school. When I started at Faegre, I heard that some lawyers were investigating what was going on in the school district. I just had to be involved."
Over seven months, the parties and their attorneys crafted a 10-point settlement that created a five-year partnership between the school district and the federal government. The partnership will facilitate the creation of programs and procedures aimed at improving the school environment for all students. Students within the school district are already starting to feel the effects.
"It's starting to change, not drastic," high school student Brittany "Lane" Geldert told The Post-Bulletin, a Minnesota newspaper. "But it feels more like normal high school now."
Stephenson is no stranger to the world of public policy. In fact, he self-designed a major in it that included creating his own off-campus experience. With four other students, Stephenson ran the campaign of a Minnesota legislative candidate.
"We spent fall term of 2004 running the campaign and winning," said Stephenson. "Then Knox gave us credit for the experience. I'm not sure that experience would have been possible anywhere else."
After graduation, he went back home to Minnesota, where he worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of Amy Klobuchar.
"After we won, I took a job as a communications specialist with the Democratic Caucus in the Minnesota House," he said. "I stayed there for about seven months and then started law school."
With a JD from the University of Chicago, Stephenson joined Faegre Baker Daniels, where he now focuses on corporate litigation. In addition to his pro bono work on the Anoka-Hennepin settlement, he's worked extensively in agribusiness and environmental sectors, and one of his bigger cases involved defending a Fortune 500 company in litigation involving natural resource damage claims.
With only three years of legal practice, Stephenson felt "complete shock" when he discovered he would be included on the Minnesota Lawyer's Attorneys of the Year list.
"It was a real honor to get an award that usually is given to attorneys with decades of experience under their belt," Stephenson said.