It was the first time in Denise Horne’s three-decade law career that she had ever taken an asylum case. She didn’t speak a word of Spanish; she had never been to El Salvador, the home country of the person whose safety and security now depended upon her efforts.
Yet there Horne stood in a Chicago immigration court a little more than one year ago, representing a woman and her two children who fled persecution at the hands of violent gangs. In that courtroom, a government lawyer probed the asylum seeker for details on her life in her home county, and a judge sat ready to decide whether the family could stay in America.
“This was by far the most rewarding experience of my entire career,” Horne says. “It was my honor to represent this incredible woman and her family. I will always get chills reflecting on it.”
That career started in the College of Business Administration, from which Horne graduated in 1985. While Horne always planned on being a lawyer, she decided while at Marquette that a degree in finance would complement her planned legal studies.
Early on, Marquette stood out as the obvious choice for college. “In addition to being a top school, I loved that it was Jesuit,” Horne says. “I love its focus on education, social justice and integrity. It was the real difference maker for me and what drew me to Marquette.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Marquette and her J.D. from the University of Illinois, Horne worked at a Chicago law firm, eventually finding a professional home at McDonald’s Corporation for 28 years where she served as corporate vice president and associate general counsel until her retirement last year. It wouldn’t be until late in her career that Horne took on the case she remembers most fondly.
The experience started mundanely: with an emailed list of available pro bono cases. “Pro bono,” or “for the public good,” is unpaid legal work that lawyers do on behalf of clients who otherwise would not have access to quality legal counsel. American Bar Association professional standards encourage all lawyers to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work every year.
“Need for legal aid resources in the community far outweighs availability, even for people who would financially qualify for legal services,” says Katie Mertz, director of pro bono and public service at Marquette Law School, which runs the Marquette Volunteer Legal Clinic that introduces students to professional volunteer work.
“There are too many asylum seekers and too few attorneys,” says Aneesha Gandhi, who works at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “There will never be enough nonprofit attorneys to do this work, so we have to partner with private attorneys and firms.”
Horne teamed up with the National Immigrant Justice Center and Katten Law Firm on this asylum case for a young woman and her children. The nerves kicked in not long after Horne agreed to assist with the case. As an in-house lawyer who primarily worked on securities law compliance and corporate governance issues, she had been to court only three times: once to be sworn in as an attorney, once for jury duty and once to watch her attorney husband practice.
“I told my colleagues that I’d love to participate, but given my limited courtroom experience, what would I really have to offer?” Horne says. “McDonald’s pro bono team promised they would pair me with people who would help and that I’d be able to make a difference.”
The facts of the case were harrowing. Horne’s client fled an abusive relationship with the leader of a notorious gang who was eventually imprisoned. The client had been hunted down by the gangs for nearly half her life. She was left with two choices: face life-threatening persecution at home or a long, perilous journey to the United States.
Once her 2,000-mile journey came to an end at the American border, Horne’s client requested asylum.
“She was so incredibly strong under the most daunting of circumstances,” Horne recalls. “Throughout the asylum process, she remained calm, never ruffled by the difficult questions she faced.”
“Many of our clients wait months or years to see an attorney and sometimes even longer for their day in court,” Gandhi says.
Before that pivotal day, Horne did everything possible to prepare. Together with the Katten team, she interviewed the client multiple times with a translator at the ready. Country conditions experts were lined up to testify about life in El Salvador. The client’s family members provided affidavits detailing the dangers she and her family faced in her home country, despite fear of gang retribution for speaking up.
When the day arrived, the client, her two children and the team of lawyers headed to immigration court. While all were hoping for a victory, everyone knew it was a tall order. Through a translator, the government’s attorney asked skeptical question after skeptical question, openly wondering if the client was in as much danger as represented.
Cases like this often go on for months and Horne’s team expected this case to be no different. Instead, after a brief recess, the judge returned to render his decision.
“The judge ruled from the bench in favor of her asylum and the government lawyer waived the right to appeal,” Horne says. “It was incredibly remarkable.”
Once the asylum hearing ended, the victorious side walked back to the Katten offices for final paperwork. Horne’s client and two children posed for a picture, their first as asylees, in front of an American flag.
“This country can be such a beacon of hope for people who are persecuted and marginalized,” Horne says.
Marquette Business emphasizes the idea of business with purpose — its graduates are called to leadership and service. Horne says she has always taken that message to heart.
“My education at Marquette involved a lot more than just going to classes and finding a job,” Horne says. “I was really compelled by the mission of justice in the world, and I wanted to be intentional about living that out. I just wish that I had started on that mission a little sooner. I plan to continue to give back in my retirement — I have to make up for some lost time.”