Podcast: A Voice For The Voiceless
In many ways, Lauren Calvert has an iconic Las Vegas practice. Her past clients include big names like MGM Mirage and the government of Dubai’s investment arm, and also the lesser known names of women who work inside Las Vegas’s strip clubs who are fighting for better treatment in their work. She’s an expert of complex litigation, including mass tort and class action law suits, and she works at Bighorn Law.
In this episode, Lauren describes the amazing work she is doing to help under-represented workers seek compensation for workplace harassment, assault, or under-paid wages. We also learn about her backstory: how she came to be a lawyer, the bumpy road along the way, and how good people can be to those who need a helping hand.
How to Listen
Join us as we sit down with the country’s best attorneys to talk about their processes and practices, as well as their outlook on the always-changing legal landscape.
KATIE WOLF: Welcome to The Filevine Fireside. Where we get cozy with the brightest minds in the legal industry. I’m your host Katie Wolf and today we’re talking to Lauren Calvert. In many ways, Lauren Calvert has an iconic Las Vegas practice. Her past clients include big names like MGM Mirage and the government of Dubai’s investment arm and also the lesser known names of women who work inside Las Vegas’ strip clubs who are fighting for better treatment in their work. She’s an expert of complex litigation including mass tort and class action lawsuits and she works at Bighorn Law. Thank you so much for talking with us today Lauren.
LAUREN CALVERT: Thank you, Katie.
KATIE: Could you set the stage for us? How did you come to be an attorney?
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LAUREN: That is a great question and one I wonder about quite a bit. I never set out to be an attorney and certainly didn’t grow up with anybody in my family that worked in the legal field. When I was 16, probably like most 16-year-olds, did not have the best relationship with my parents and I ended up going at it on my own and lived through periods of brief homelessness as a teenager and a lot of turmoil and it definitely prepared me for the kind of practice that I have today in a very very weird way. Having graduated at 16, I couldn’t enter into any kind of contract. I hadn’t reached the age of maturity yet and been emancipated as a minor. So, I couldn’t go to college. I graduated a year early, distinguished scholar, high honors, class president and couldn’t go to college. And I spent the next, oh gosh, up until 2004 when I graduated with my degree, really struggling to get through school. I would waitress, bartend, any service industry job you can think of here in Las Vegas, trying to save up money to go to college because I really knew that education was going to be the way out of my life that I was living. As a waitress, I met a wonderful man and his wife who were regular clients of mine. Every night, I would look in my apron, and without failure they figured out how to sneak a 100 bill in there because they knew that I really wanted to go to school but that I was struggling. When I finished up my undergraduate degree, I applied for law schools and got into a couple top tier California law schools. And when I told this couple about it, they looked at me with these big eyes and said, “Well, you know Bob here. He’s kind of a big deal.” It turns out he was Bob Bess, who was the partner of the largest and oldest law firm in Nevada and he headed up the gaming law department of Lionel Sawyer. He had worked in the White House under JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson and he’d gone to law school when governor Grant Sawyer, then a senator, told him to go to law school, become a lawyer, come out to Nevada and write all of our regulations and statutes that govern gaming. So, he was the author and the Godfather as we called him of modern gaming law. So, he told me if I would stay here in Vegas, go to law school here at this new school that just opened up, if I did well, he would give me a job when I graduated. And I went on to teach gaming law with Bob and be one of the head lobbyists at the firm. It was all a complete accident. That is the long long story.
KATIE: You are a well-known expert in gaming law now. I know nothing about that. What’s the work that you do with gaming law?
LAUREN: Well, with gaming law I guess one of the most interesting things is probably that when I would tell people I practiced gaming law and they would be from a state outside of Nevada, they would go, “Great! Wildlife! What do you do for gaming?” I went, “No, no not hunting for big game. Gaming. Gambling.” So, a lot of what we did involved giving people or entities licenses. It’s a privileged license here in Vegas. It’s very expensive to get a gaming license and it’s a background check that is more stringent than FBI, CIA, NASA, whatever. It is the most stringent background check you’ll ever go through. And so, a lot of my work was assisting people through that and companies through that as well as maintaining compliance so that they could keep their licenses and then representing them in front of the Gaming Control Board and Gaming Control Commission when they got in trouble.
KATIE: Are you still doing that work or have you moved into other areas?
LAUREN: Sadly, we thought gaming would be immune from different slumps in the economy. It turned out we just had a lag effect. And the way that people would spend discretionary income and the way money flowed into casinos was just stalled. So that hit my practice after I’d been at the firm not terribly long. And I actually had to diversify what I was doing. Whatever attorney in this huge firm had work that needed to be done, I didn’t really get to say no to. And it was awful. I thought for sure I would never get enough knowledge in any one area of law to then become a big practitioner at it because I was always having to switch gears so quickly. It turned out to be one of those frustrating blessings in disguise because the practice I have today is very diverse and I do a lot of different things. It’s not so important to know everything. It’s very very important to have a skill where you can go out and learn it and figure out “What do I need to know to get through this problem?” And that was such a frustrating skill to learn.
KATIE: What are some of the things that you bring, some of the wisdom that you bring from all of these other practices into your more plaintiff-side work that you’re doing now?
LAUREN: I think a couple things…especially coming from gaming law where we are working with a regulatory board that is not comprised of attorneys. And then the same way working as a lobbyist for many years. And in Nevada, we have a part-time legislature so we end up with a lot of retired school teachers, ranchers, people that can take six months off every other year and go work for pennies in Carson City. So, working with a lot of lay people and people that aren’t necessarily your adversaries gives you a mindset going in to litigation, hey these are other people on the other side of the beat, on the defendant’s side. And it’s more important as we talk about here at Bighorn, it’s not about being right. It’s about making things work. So, I think having that background has really helped. I think the other part that has helped is to look at other areas of law that might affect what we’re doing in PI and either draw them in as additional claims or be able to prove our case in non-traditional ways.
KATIE: Speaking of non-traditional, your childhood, your upbringing, your teenage years, do you find that your experience with forms of trauma allows you to relate better with clients now who have gone through difficulties, who are hurting?
LAUREN: Absolutely! I’m able to discern a lot of my clients, especially…I’m sure we’ll discuss this…my dancer clients by telling them, “Hey, I haven’t come from a place of privilege.” I went through some of the worst of the worst and I understand where they’re coming from. I’m going to stand by their side the whole time and I’m not going to judge them. I’m not going to let the other side kick them around or make them feel small and we’re going to get through it together. It was a breakthrough we really needed because the female dancers could not open up or relate to our very lovely male attorneys here who are LDS and probably had never been in a strip club and were not able to get that breakthrough.
KATIE: I do want to ask you more questions about that case. I understand ongoing litigation. I don’t want to ask about anything that’s sensitive. But what can you tell us about the work you’ve done with dancers in those strip clubs.
LAUREN: The firm started working on these cases quite a while back. There was a case called Terry Lee Sapphire and one of our firms’ owners, Ryan Anderson, had worked on that at a prior firm. Terry Lee Sapphire ended up being a phenomenal case that the Supreme Court of Nevada wrote a wonderful opinion on and it made exotic dancers just about per se employees. You know, not quite. They didn’t go quite that far. But it would be really hard for a club to say that a dancer was not an employee based on the Terry Lee Sapphire ruling. When the Terry Lee Sapphire decision came out there was a lot of publicity about it in the newspapers, radio, TV and Ryan Anderson’s name would come up in those pieces. They would Google him, find out that it was Bighorn Law and they would call up saying, “How do I make a claim against the club I work at? How do I receive justice?” And as we talked to these women calling in, we decided that we would just start up a bunch of class actions against these various other clubs so we have right now seven or eight class actions against these strip clubs. They’ve been going on since November 2014. They’re all kind of at various stages in litigation and settlement and appeals up to the Nevada Supreme Court. Again, one of the frustrating things that happened after Terry Lee Sapphire was that club owners said, “This is disastrous for us. What are we going to do?” They gathered up their coffers and went to our part-time legislature filled with retired school teachers and ranchers and said, “Hey, we want to change the law that states who is an independent contractor and who is an employee.” And they were very successful in their lobbying efforts and halfway through our cases the law in Nevada changed and said, “Hey, everybody who steps foot in Nevada and receives paperwork is an independent contractor.” And under the law as it stands now, even I would be an independent contractor. I can’t figure out who would not be. They made it so that the law applied retroactively so the cases that were already going and that we had been litigating for well over a year were kaput and that seemed very very unfair. So that’s really the gist of the cases. We also, based on our experience suing these clubs, brought a case against Uber. Similar to what happened here in the dancer cases, a ruling came out about halfway through our Uber case that said, “Hey, if you find a contract that contains an arbitration agreement, you have to go arbitrate. We’re not even going to even hear arguments if the agreement is unconscionable, if they forced you into signing this, we don’t want to hear it. Go see the arbitrator.” And it’s a big problem for us because companies that utilize arbitration agreements are repeat players in arbitral forums. They’re there all the time. And they pick the arbitral forums. They say, “Hey Jamz, hey AAA, hey whatever arbitration forum, we’ll put you in our contract and have it say that anyone who wants to file a claim has to go through your organization.” Now, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who they’re going to side with.
KATIE: Do you think there’s any hope for moving beyond mandatory arbitration agreements right now for regaining that Seventh Amendment right?
LAUREN: Yeah, it’s going to be hard. The decision that came out was from the United States Supreme Court. And it has definitely forced us here at Bighorn to reassess what kinds of cases we want to go forward with as class action. And I don’t know that we’ll file another dancer class action because they have now all put arbitration provisions in their agreement. And it forces us to look at different areas of law where we can help consumers, can help the little guy and we won’t have to deal with that arbitration issue. I don’t think there is a very good way of dealing with it at this point and it’s very unfortunate.
KATIE: Backing up a little bit, could you explain what some of the conditions were that these women were facing in these lawsuits and why it was important to them to be counted as employees rather than contractors?
LAUREN: If a dancer is hurt on the job and this happened not long ago in Texas, a dancer was shot while she was on stage. We actually have a client here in our worker’s comp section who was severely burned and another one that was stabbed in the eye. They can’t get worker’s comp benefits because they are not employees. They’re independent contractors under these agreements they signed. If they are sexually harassed, sexually discriminated against, they can’t bring any of the traditional claims that employees can bring to make sure that employers are behaving correctly. Those are all out the window. They can’t get health insurance. If they break an ankle on stage because they’re pole dancing, not only do they not have worker’s comp benefits, they also don’t have insurance. They now have a broken leg that never gets fixed quite right. And it became important to me because of all these other kinds of ancillary rights that come along with being an employee that a lot of us probably take for granted. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about this here at my firm but I have at prior firms, if your boss is sexually harassing you to the point of making your life hell, there are a lot of things you can do about it when you’re an employee that will make them worry the day they were ever a disgusting pig. These women do not ever have that opportunity or chance and when you’re in an industry that is so sexually charged, it happens a lot. It also is a standard procedure of the clubs that not only do they not pay them any wages at all, and mind you they are making millions and millions and millions of dollars every quarter. Every quarter we’ve looked at their gross income. They make the dancers pay for the privilege of coming in to their wonderful establishment and being groped by hundreds of horny men. So their out of pocket before they even get into the club to try and make some tips, if they want access to the V.I.P. room, which in the strip club industry is how they really make their money. It’s not on lap dances, it’s not on stage, it’s getting back to the V.I.P “champagne” room and if the dancers don’t agree with the bouncers that “Hey, I’ll give you half of whatever I make inside here,” the bouncers will never let them inside that room. They will physically block them. And it became such a one-sided terrible system that my heart really went out to them and I thought, “We have to help them. It’s so not right on so many levels.”
KATIE: That fills me with fury. I’m glad you are there doing that work. And I’m furious at the ways that it is difficult to continue doing that work. One reason this is close to my heart is I’ve done labor organizing in the past and my experience has been that it’s sometimes just impossible to find lawyers who have the capacity to take on these cases. Do you think that it sort of only happens when there’s someone like yourself that cares a lot about it or is there a way to make labor law a little bit more sustainable for lawyers who have bills to pay?
LAUREN: We don’t have a lot of labor law attorneys because we don’t have a lot of labor law attorneys. It’s hard to break into this if you don’t have someone to guide you through how these cases work. And so because we don’t have a lot of these mentors and guides, we end up with the same small pool which, gets smaller and smaller it seems like sometimes. One of the things we’ve done is partner with other firms here in the Las Vegas area and actually up in Reno as well and when they identify a bad act by a putative employer, they reach out to us and we will walk them through how they do a class action and then that way they can go out and start doing them on their own. You can’t really make too great of a living if you are carrying an entire case through the litigation process and at the end of the day you’re looking at a maximum of $10,000. They take so long to do. The costs are so high on them. New practitioners can’t really carry a case for four, five, ten years which is what it takes a lot of time, to settle these out. And they also can’t do them one by one. So, when we partner with them, we show them how to make it sustainable while they’re doing other types of cases that will have cash flow coming in on a quicker basis something like P.I., worker’s comp, business law, estate and wills, what have you. Because it is just something I think where people need to know the way on how they do this, to make a profit at it and understand that, yes, you can do it within your practice if you’re supplementing your cash flow through traditional means.
KATIE: You also spend a lot of time volunteering with organizations that provide legal aid to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it. What have your experiences with that been?
LAUREN: Before I even passed the bar here in Nevada, when I was at Lionel, Sawyer and Collins, I took on a pro bono case with a licensed attorney overseeing it. And I made a promise to myself before I even took the bar that at any given time I would have at least one active pro bono case and that was very important to me because I felt like I’d been very very blessed to have the job that I now have and to have the ability to help people. I most certainly remembered being a young vagabond teenager sleeping out of the back of unlocked cars and wishing someone had helped me. I do what are called C.A.P. cases. And it’s the Children’s Advocacy Project and we represent children who are in the legal system because of abuse and neglect. It’s a tough area to just dive into but it’s worth it if attorneys don’t step up to the plate and start doing it, it will never get done. So, you have to be willing to hear terrible awful things happening to small children and to go into court and advocate for them. It reminds you of why you became an attorney. It is important and it’s a good thing to do. It’s a very hard thing to do but I think it’s something that every attorney should be required to do.
KATIE: Lauren, when you’re working on these hard cases, how do you maintain your mental and emotional well-being.
LAUREN: (Laughing) That is a great question and if I find out the answer I will let you know, I swear. (Laughing) I have not figured that out and I don’t think that I am unique in that sense.
KATIE: So you also are doing work on estate planning, correct?
LAUREN: Here at the firm when we have probate come up or estate planning needs come up, they tend to make their way over to my desk. With what I’m doing I’ve become so busy that I can’t really give them the time and attention they need so if it’s a client that we can refer out, we certainly do and we have wonderful partnerships with great estate planning attorneys here in Las Vegas. If it’s a client, however, where having to refer them to an estate attorney is going to ruin their case because the cost is going to be so high that we’ll never be able to resolve it, I’ll take it on and do it just so that it’s an added-on benefit to the client. For example, if there’s a 15/30 policy and their medical bills are really really high because they were severely injured, in fact, perhaps if they were killed in it and we need to open up a state for probate, by the time we pay off medical providers and try to put something in the client’s pocket, there’s also not going to be room to pay that estate planning attorney who had opened up their probate. So, I tend to do just those ones that we absolutely need to do because otherwise the client cannot afford it.
KATIE: I believe I saw a paper, one of the contributions you’ve made into this field, it was about lesbian and gay couples and estate planning. And I’m just curious with gay marriage now available nationwide, has that sort of leveled the estate planning field or are there still special needs and considerations for those couples?
LAUREN: So now that gay marriage is legal, we don’t really have those issues. What I mean by issues is normally if a heterosexual couple gets married there are so many things that occur by operation of law that you don’t have to plan for. If you’re injured they’ll be able to come back into the hospital room. If you’re unconscious and someone needs to make the call on a critical medical decision, they’re the ones that get to make the call. If they die without a will, you’re the wife, you’re going to get it. All kinds of great things that flow from that. And same sex couples were not getting any of those benefits and so we were having to go in and essentially contract around it and write in, for lack of a better word, a bunch of mini contracts so that assets and protections would flow the same way for same sex couples as to your traditional heterosexual couples. That went away when we got wonderful wonderful ruling from the Supreme Court. Now it’s cropped up in a different way and I think what’s really interesting is more and more it is becoming socially acceptable to not get married. Whether you’re a heterosexual couple or a same sex couple, whatever kind of relationship you want to have, people just don’t want to enter into marriage. But they still want to make sure that if something happens to them their assets go to the person most important to them and that if they are injured or if someone needs to make the call on a lifesaving medical treatment, that it’s going to be this person who, by all other views, would appear to be their spouse, but they just don’t want to get married. So, it has now taken on a life of its own providing the same kind of protection for same sex couples as well and it’s very interesting.
KATIE: Lauren, I’m just blown away by everything that you’ve done and the things you’ve worked on and the life you’ve lead. I want to know if you were to be called upon to give the graduation speech for a law school class, what advice would you give a room full of dewy-eyed new graduates?
LAUREN: I would probably ask them for advice. (Both laughing) I think that every generation that comes up just blows me away and knocks me off my feet. When I was teaching at the law school out here, all I could think was, “Oh my God, they’re so much smarter than me. This is my competition. I should probably just go retire now and just call it a day.” And I think that people who are my age and older who kind of make fun of the generation coming up, I think, “Oh, they’re not hard workers” and “Hey, they live at home until they’re whatever age.” Um, I think they’re doing themselves a disservice because I find that these new little dewy-eyed munchkins and young adults and adults, they are so wise. They have so much to offer. And I think as the generation of people in their late thirties and early forties, we need to be listening to them a lot more because there’s a number of times where they have the answers and we don’t, so I would probably ask them for the advice. Aside from that, I would tell them that if you’re going into the practice of law it’s so much harder than anyone will ever tell you. You can’t even explain the levels you’re going to have to dig into inside of yourself to keep moving forward and going on and doing the things you do, but also you can never explain to someone the amount of rewards that you get from helping another human being who cannot otherwise help themselves. Win or lose, that is just an amazing feeling.
KATIE: Lauren, it’s so much fun and such an honor to talk with you.
LAUREN: All right. Thanks Katie.
KATIE: This has been The Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie. Wee’ll see you next week.