Behind the billboard: Joumana Kayrouz’s against-all-odds story
“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” — Charles Lamb
Driving past no fewer than eight images of her likeness, advertisements on buses and billboards, we arrive at the residence of Joumana Kayrouz. Located in Bloomfield Hills, the house is opulent without being gaudy, tasteful in its hugeness. Pastel Easter decorations pepper the topiaries outside the sheet-glass entrance, multicolored eggs and hot-pink muslin flamboyant against the slate and marble palace. Ms. Kayrouz has just arrived home from meeting the president of the United States, her third or fourth meeting, she cannot quite remember. She stands in her driveway and asks the reporter to meet her at the front door as she poses for a photograph with two people, likely one of dozens she has smiled for during her day, which as usual, began before dawn.
A French Bulldog explodes from the front door as she opens it, barking above its size, sniffing the newcomer. Inexplicably it wears two collars, one reading “Star Wars.”
“Oh, Prince Pierre,” Kayrouz calls, her hands on her thighs, bending slightly as one would speak to a naughty and beloved child. The dog growls at the interloper then loses interest. “Please come inside. Sit and I will meet you momentarily.”
The entrance to her great room appears to contain a guest book on a green marble podium. Two symmetrical staircases descend from a catwalk hallway and envelop the front door like the open arms of a hug. The room is homey and comfortable for its size, yet retains the air of a not-quite-private space, used for entertaining. It’s here Kayrouz regularly holds charity events for a number of causes and politicians, with guests numbering in the hundreds.
She returns with a bottle of water for her guest, and apologizes for her exhaustion. She is just getting over bronchitis and has lost nearly a week of work in bed. Speaking in formal English — never using contractions and with the clipped accent of a native Arabic speaker and the faintly British inflection of a colonial primary education, Kayrouz speaks at length of her life, past failures and triumphs, hopes, fears, dreams.
“Law school was torturous,” she says. “I had no role models, no mentors—”
She is interrupted by a phone call asking for her time and the use of her house in another fundraiser. She excuses herself, answers the call and with six quick words dismisses it until tomorrow.
“Now, where were we?”
Just a few days older than 50, Joumana Kayrouz may offer one of the most compelling portraits of the American Dream that southeast Michigan has to offer. In the midst of the 30-year Lebanese civil war, she arrived in the United States with $1,000 in her pocket, half a college education and limited English language skills. Since then, she has built the second-largest personal injury law firm in Michigan, employing about 70 people, including a large team of lawyers. It’s the only major personal injury law firm in Michigan owned by a woman, and wields an advertising budget of approximately $4.3 million dollars a year. She holds a degree in ethics from Yale University, speaks four languages — English, Arabic, French and Italian, and is flawless in all but the last — and metro Detroiters can see her face on more than 750 billboards and buses, the wallpaper of the city.
She is probably also the most visible Arab-American in southeast Michigan — an area of the world with one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East. She’s been a trailblazer in her profession, one traditionally dominated by white Jewish men, and to many who know her, she’s a quiet feminist icon. She serves as a cultural ambassador between Lebanon and the United States, and is an enormous donor to progressive politicians, especially those who advocate for the rights of women. She gives approximately 20 percent of her wealth to charity, tithing in accordance to her profoundly felt religion, and serves as a role model to many in the legal profession and the immigrant and Arab-American communities in Detroit.
She is also the butt of sexist jokes and scoffing on social media and comment sections of often tongue-in-cheek media pieces, regularly receives pointed and public questioning over her appearance and success, which men in her profession, frankly, do not receive — imagine open discussion of top competitor Sam Bernstein’s reproductive organs — and is the subject of perennial rumors that she is the figurehead for a firm actually headed by a man, or that her advertising budget is paid for by a boyfriend, or that a husband with deep pockets is supporting the firm, or that her advertisements are subsidized by a male doctor to which she refers cases or …
Notice, all of the rumors involve a man.
Most of us interact only with her image, an Arabic name and the single word, “Injured?” This leaves lots of room for interpretation, space for us to project our thoughts and fears upon that face, to assume what kind of person must live behind it. She doesn’t necessarily fit into the comfortable stereotypes of how successful women look, or how an Arab immigrant dresses, or the demographics of a personal injury lawyer.
The differences between people who know her and those who assume they do from her photograph are stunning. Every last person we spoke to for this story who knows Kayrouz had nothing but sterling things to say about her, many absolutely gushing.
Her story may offer some insight on modern-day immigration and the American Dream, the continued challenges of what it means to be a successful woman of color in today’s America, and a peek inside southeast Michigan’s Arab-American community. It might also say something difficult and hopeful about the America we live in today.
In any case, she elicits strong responses on all sides.
“People who are mysteries stimulate the imagination until they can be put into a box,” Kayrouz says. “People have a desire to fit everybody and anybody in a box.”
Kayrouz sits behind her desk in the corner office on the seventh floor of the Southfield Town Center, listening to three Iraqi brothers plead their case before her. Each holds an envelope torn at the top, sheaths for documents critical to their current struggle.
She reclines and bounces slowly in her chair, her eyes following each brother in turn as he speaks. So far she’s done business in two languages this day, Arabic and English, and her assistant has not yet brought in her lunch, a meal of spiced chicken, vegetables and pickles. This conversation is in Arabic and is occasionally punctuated with English for technical terms like “deposition” and “CT Scan.”
It’s a typical day and client roster at her office, and she’s willing to accommodate a reporter who showed up unannounced.
Her office spans two floors in the glass tower and has the feel of a newsroom when someone important has just died, all hustle and rapid communication, deference to experience. It’s refreshingly diverse, and Kayrouz employs many women and “minorities.”
Yet her personal office is quiet and formal, and gives the air of having audience with royalty, a queen upon her throne. The three brothers approach and speak to her as such, deference apparent even in a language foreign to the visitor.
Kayrouz has an extraordinarily lucid and orderly mind, and she counts argumentative points off on her fingers, often delving into the finer nuance of an argument without losing focus and returning to the central point the way a quiet pack of wolves encircles a fawn; that is to say, totally. Her command of language is awesome, especially notable because it’s not her first or even second, but her third language that wins cases. She is able to afford so many advertisements because her firm is extremely successful in the courtroom.
The three brothers stand to leave, obviously pleased with whatever has been said in their native language, and hug Kayrouz in turn. They profusely thank her in English and call her “beautiful.” She walks them to the front door and returns.
“It never stops here,” she says referring to her caseload. She returns to her computer, looking for information on her next client. The previous couple, a Pakistani husband and wife, had invited Kayrouz to his son’s wedding.
“Is your son still in law school,” Kayrouz asks the man.
His face brightens and he straightens in his chair. “You remember!”
“I would like you to come and meet my community,” he says. Kayrouz replied she would come if she is in the country.
“It’s all about fighting for people. My slogan is lawyers on the side of people,” she says later, underlining “people” in the air with her finger. “Not corporations, not hospitals, people.”
The Kayrouz firm specializes in auto accidents and primarily sues insurance companies for money her clients believe is owed to them but whose claims have been denied or shorted. She charges a contingency fee, like almost all other personal injury lawyers, at industry standard 33 percent, also the cap in Michigan. The cases rarely exceed $50,000, a common state policy amount, and the firm makes money by handling lots of these cases at a time, dozens, hundreds. It’s a special lawyer who gets invited to weddings and sees a half-dozen clients a day.
An alarm rings on her phone. “If you allow me, I must appear on the radio each day, at 2:53 p.m.” She returns to her computer, looking for the day’s topic. The show is in Arabic and broadcast on WNZK-AM, a station whose primary audience is immigrants. She’s also on for 20 minutes on Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:30 p.m. She mentions that she used to speak about auto accidents and insurance specifically, but now gives simple and practical financial advice, responding to a need expressed by the community. About 60 percent to 65 percent of her business is done in Arabic.
She says about 15 percent of her clients cannot speak English at all, and that there was much discussion about translating contracts and other documents into other languages, but ultimately it was decided against. Members of her staff help translate.
“It’s based on lots of trust,” she says.
On this day, her three minutes of radio time concern how interest is calculated on credit cards. It’s part advertising strategy and part genuine empathy for her community. The American legal system can be huge and scary for anyone, but especially for immigrants and people who may not have the technical grasp of English necessary to decipher dense documents and quick proceedings. It’s part of the reason she commands so much respect and awe within the immigrant community because she is often the voice and advocate for those rubbing up against American-style corporate capitalism and serpentine legal proceedings.
One of the three Iraqi brothers had mentioned earlier that he’d purchased an uninsured motorist rider on his plan on a recommendation he had heard from Kayrouz on the radio. It was integral to his case.
Kayrouz hangs up the phone and an assistant enters. She notifies Kayrouz that she’ll be bringing in her next client, an Albanian woman who has recently been in an auto accident, and her son. The woman is short and round, her son tall and angular. They both wear leather jackets and he habitually refers to her as “’Ma” as they discuss the case with varying levels of English proficiency.
Near the end of the meeting the mother begins to cry.
“I can’t live like this,” she says in accented English, motioning to her back and neck. “I can’t do nothing.”
Kayrouz stands and hands her a box of tissues. She hugs her for longer than it takes to shoot a free throw, and holds her arm looking into her eyes. She says she’ll do what she can to help.
When they leave, Kayrouz is asked if the interaction is typical.
Kayrouz was born and raised in the Christian section of Beirut to a military officer father and a housewife mother. She is the youngest of four siblings, the other three brothers, and education was held in esteem second only to Christianity in her household. She describes her upbringing as “very safe, very comfortable” despite the civil war happening in the tiny country. “Maybe I should have been more worried.”
She defined her childhood self as a “misfit” while attending the American University in Beirut, where she studied philosophy — noting Plato, Aristotle and Jesus Christ among her favorite philosophers — and remained under the shadow of her family, especially her brothers, all of whom have Ph.D.s. She originally wanted to become a doctor.
“I am going to outdo my three brothers,” she remembers thinking, “‘do not’ never worked well for me.”
“I hadn’t come into my own. I had to live by other people’s rules. That girl was unsure of herself, a little lost, a little lonely,” she says.
“I was a misfit because of my thinking as a girl. I didn’t fit into what society expected of a Lebanese Christian young girl. I had grand ideas — grand plans! I wanted to exercise my unlimited potential.”
One week before her 22nd birthday, she moved to New Haven, Conn., following her former husband, who was accepted to medical school in the United States. They lived in the tiny second-floor flat of a house and her husband was often on call, leaving Kayrouz with homesickness, first-trimester pregnancy and loneliness.
“The U.S. was a cultural shock,” she says. “I was so lost. We didn’t know where to buy a mattress. I remember a lady at church explaining to me what a credit card was.” An interesting turn, considering almost 30 years later she’s speaking to immigrants on the radio about how credit cards work.
She finished her undergraduate degree at Connecticut State University, and then enrolled at Yale University, where she created the curriculum for a master’s degree in medical ethics. She also became enamored of some of the protest movements and debates happening at Yale, specifically campaigns to coerce the wealthy university to pay taxes to the struggling city and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas over the sexual harassment objections of Anita Hill.
“People were so engaged and interested in human injustice. They debated issues from the bottom of their hearts,” she says. “I was happy to tag along, but shy and timid. I was interested and impressed, but at first my voice was tiny.”
She began to grow disenchanted with medicine and decided she wanted to be a lawyer, something people had suggested she would be good at her entire life. Although her reasons for practicing have changed — “evaporated light years ago” — at the time she was enamored of the power, sway and glitz attorneys held in American culture.
“[I saw that] every person with a law degree had power,” she says. “Lawyers can sue the president, and the city and the police. That was new to me!
“Bill Clinton was treated like a citizen like everyone else,” she says, referring to his impeachment trial. “You couldn’t sue the president of Lebanon.”
Soon after graduating, her former husband took a job at a new hospital, and once again she followed him, this time to metro Detroit. She applied to the top five law schools in Michigan, was accepted to all of them, and chose Wayne State University in part because it would allow her to spend the most time with her daughters, the youngest of which was 2 years old. After graduation, she went to work for the late Harry Philo, a legend in personal injury law, and was made junior partner within four months of being hired.
At this time her marriage began to disintegrate, and she eventually divorced her husband, an experience she speaks of as the most liberating in her life.
“I’m a late bloomer. I’ve only come into my own over the last 10 years,” she says. “I was the ‘daughter of’ for the first 21 years. Then I became the ‘wife of’ and I didn’t have the freedom to find out who I am.”
“I believe you don’t need a man,” she says. “I believe it’s dangerous to need anyone.”
“I’ll give you six months.”
So said Kayrouz’s former husband, predicting she would be back. She was determined to start a new life, and it was also during this time that Philo retired. Kayrouz decided she wanted to open her own firm, a “leap of faith” and begin anew both personally and professionally.
“I had no plan, no reserves, just my faith in myself and my faith in God,” she says.
Kayrouz began alone, winning her first case for the maximum amount for her client, one that had been overlooked by a local rival. She was soon able to hire a secretary that she shared with another lawyer, and for four years worked by herself with the one part-time staff member.
She recounted a story of a judge, whom she asked remain unnamed, who did not believe she was a lawyer, owing to her appearance. He forced Kayrouz to recite her bar code for the court — a lawyerly identification akin to a social security number — a humiliating experience.
“One day, you will remember this face,” she remembers thinking.
If he lives in metro Detroit and drives with any regularity it’s likely he cannot forget it. After approximately four years, her business exploded, partially due to her advertisements on billboards and buses, considered innovative at the time. The advertisements are particularly effective because they’re primarily based on an image, in a profession typically associated with words, and can appeal to anyone regardless of language skills.
She credits her faith as the key to her success and said it has contributed “one billion percent.” She says she often prays with clients — be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or anything else. She often seasons her conversations with stories from the Bible, and says she “finds the common ground” with other faiths.
Cautioning she is not a Christian scholar nor has read extensively in other religious texts, “I have met enough people that are Jews or Muslims, and I will quote the Bible and they will quote its match in the Koran or the Torah,” she says. “We’re all equal under the eyes of God.”
She says her success has allowed her to advocate not only for clients but female judges and female politicians, and she ardently supports Hillary Clinton. She views the former senator and secretary of state as a role model as a woman and a professional.
“I am so shocked America hasn’t been ready for a [female president],” Kayrouz says. “Enough already — she needs to be our next president.”
“Women still get 70 cents to the dollar [compared to men]” she says. “That’s so shocking in the U.S., one of the most liberal countries in the world; women still make 70 cents to the dollar.”
“It’s already hard to be a professional woman,” says Anne Duggan, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s studies program at Wayne State University. “And [Kayrouz’s] image doesn’t necessarily correspond to people’s notions of a professional woman. [In American culture] the professional woman has been defeminized.”
“You don’t have to burn your bra to be a feminist,” Duggan says. “You don’t have to throw out your dresses.”
Duggan notes the word “feminism” is sometimes still associated with “male-hating,” — a co-opted definition used to discredit its message of equality — and Kayrouz is careful to avoid this definition.
“I don’t want to call myself a feminist, because I don’t know exactly what that means,” Kayrouz says. “But I’ll tell you what I am: I see no difference between men and women.”
Duggan notes that the prevalence of rumors surrounding Kayrouz are typical for women in positions of power, and are variants on the “slept her way to the top” charge successful women often face.
“It’s a way of undermining her authority instead of recognizing her talent and hard work,” Duggan says. “People want to explain away a woman’s success.”
For the record, we attempted to verify any rumors surrounding Kayrouz and her law practice. We found no merit to any of them, nor could we get anyone to speak on record charging Kayrouz with anything. Kayrouz calls the rumors “vicious” and challenges anyone to come up with proof. “Not one dime,” she says.
“You have a lot of these other attorneys jealous of what this single mom has accomplished on her own,” says fellow Attorney Bill Dobreff. “I think she is targeted because she is dominating a business previously dominated by men.”
He also says he considers her an “outstanding” lawyer and especially a judge of talent, and said, “She is the American Dream. She is one of the things you celebrate in this country.”
As for questions regarding her appearance, all we will note is she has naturally green eyes — not the stereotype of Arab women that dominates American media. Readers can extrapolate from there.
“The media representation of Arab-Americans has been generally negative [and homogenous]” says Sally Howell, Professor of Arab-American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Roughly half the Arab-Americans in metro Detroit are Christian. … The Arab-American community is very diverse.”
She points to the city of Hamtramck, “where the economy of the city is basically being driven by new immigrants from Yemen and Bangladesh. There’s opportunity if people are willing to take risks,” she says. “Joumana Kayrouz is a great example of that.”
“I love this country and I fiercely protect it,” Kayrouz says. “I have lived in this country for 28 years, more than I lived in Lebanon. This is the most beautiful country in the world, and I am proud to be an American.”
“Real power is the ability to make change,” she says.
Back in Kayrouz’s great room, the dog with the Star Wars collar jumps on a couch, holding a toy. Kayrouz speaks to him in baby talk and he drops it into our lap, hoping this guest will start a game of fetch. There is a pink sticky note attached to the inside of the front door, reminding residents and guests not to open it and to use its twin. It’s somehow strangely touching, this small human intrusion into the glass and stone grandeur.
“Even with my friends I am guarded,” Kayrouz says. “It’s the fate of all the people who are at the top of their careers and what they do. It’s a function of the times we live in.”
“At the top there are only false friends and true enemies,” she says. “When you are vulnerable you can never let your guard down.”
She says she’s always wary of people taking advantage of her generosity, and it can become exhausting to figure out who is genuine. Despite this, she wishes to continue her charity work and expand its scope in the future.
“I want to spend the rest of my life serving,” she says. “[But for now] I serve exactly where I am.”
It would be easy for Kayrouz to become wistful, thinking about the future and past, but she does not. Her passion flares, indicating continued striving.
“It’s not that I don’t have regrets — some things I would have done differently. But I did the best I could with the knowledge and wisdom I had.
“I was slated not to succeed. I don’t look like a lawyer, I have a foreign name, I could have used all these excuses. I created something out of thin air, and I am really proud of it.”
Kayrouz grabs her phone from an end table and texts her daughter, waiting upstairs to be interviewed.
“I don’t need to be better than anyone. I want to be better than I was yesterday,” Kayrouz says.
Her daughter Stephanie descends the stairs, the spitting image of her mother and the eldest of two daughters. She is 27 and in her first year of law school at the University of Detroit Mercy. Her mother asks her how a recent test went, using the colloquialism “crim’,” short for criminal, and her daughter replies it went well.
“I will let you two speak,” Kayrouz says before exiting.
After briefly considering advertising, the younger Kayrouz has decided she wants to follow her mother into the personal injury law business.
“It’s a magic moment in your life when you realize you can be like your parents,” she says.
“I am flawed from head to toe. Make sure you put that,” Kayrouz says. “I am a flawed person.
“I don’t like seeing myself in all of the advertisements.”
As Kayrouz looks back at her life in this modern Xanadu and speaks of past loneliness, her detractors and her accomplishments, her faith in God and America, it’s difficult not to see some parallels in the greatest of American movies, Citizen Kane.
But her story seems to have a different ending. Instead of losing something — in Kane’s case his innocence — this magnate seems to have found something — her voice.
Like Charles Foster Kane, it’s easy to see Joumana Kayrouz as a static and towering tycoon, a one-dimensional image on a billboard. It’s easy to imagine the woman behind the image as a caricature, someone we have figured out, someone we can place in easy and fixed categories. As it turns out, it’s more complex. That image we see might not just be a photograph of Kayrouz at all. In fact, it might be a reflection of what is in our own hearts, a mirror into the American landscape.