Criminal defence attorney Zoe Dolan often stands up for the rights of people society vilifies. As a transgender woman, she knows what it is like to be judged by people who don’t have all the facts.
Dolan was part of the team defending Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law and the most high profile al-Qaeda associate to be convicted of terrorism charges in an American civilian court.
The job pitted her against, not only US government prosecutors, but also against a prickly jurist, US District Judge Lewis Kaplan. On one occasion he threatened her with disciplinary action for filing a motion to compel the government to turn over documents she argued were relevant to her client’s case.
Dolan stood her ground.
"I don’t back down," Dolan said during a casual chat the day after the verdict. "It is my job to walk right up to the line and then stand there – in between an individual human being and the most powerful adversary in the world."
That’s not to suggest the 37-year-old doesn’t respect the United States justice system. She points to a transformative experience during which her country saved her from an uncertain fate.
It was May 11, 2001 in Egypt, where she had travelled to study Arabic. Dolan was on board the Queen Boat, a floating gay nightclub, when it was raided by Egyptian security forces. More than 50 men were arrested and sent to prison after trials that were condemned by human rights groups and the United Nations.
Dolan, who was male-bodied at the time, said a plainclothes officer grabbed her arm to arrest her but let her go when she said, "I am American."
"Those three words give meaning to what I do every day," said Dolan. To this day, she doesn’t know what happened to a friend who was arrested.
"I felt powerless, and vulnerable, in ways that I had never imagined possible. My life has been about standing up for what I believe ever since."
A secret revealed
Dolan came back to the United States and enrolled at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. About the same time, she began her physical transformation from male to female.
But it wasn’t until she applied for top-secret government security clearance that she revealed she was transgender in her professional life – against the advice of two of her mentors. She worried that authorities might be concerned that keeping it secret would make her susceptible to "improper foreign influence," or blackmail.
It’s not something she brings up with clients, however.
"I don’t think it matters to the client," says fellow attorney Stanley Cohen, who took Dolan on as part of Abu Ghaith’s defence team. He also said it certainly didn’t matter to him. Cohen points to her intelligence, methodical nature, and ability to speak Arabic as assets.
Doesn’t Dolan wonder what Abu Ghaith would think if he knew? She admits she’s thought about it. But her focus, when all is said and done, is her clients.
"I think they’ve probably got more important things on their minds."
While going public could cost her business, she believes standing up for herself makes her all the more effective in standing up for her clients.