Katz Builds Legal Career Based on a Mission
At age 32, and with only about four years of legal experience, Matthew Katz has turned his legal practice into a thriving law firm with 10 lawyers and four offices, including a new office in Mexico City.
Described by his colleagues as a visionary and by his clients as trustworthy, Katz has built a law practice that provides a full range of legal services to the local Spanish-speaking community. His legal career has become an extension of both his commitment to political activism within the Latino community, and his long-time passion for the Spanish language.
Prior to becoming a lawyer, he taught at Farragut Career Academy high school, which serves the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Little Village. He learned firsthand the injustices his students and their families faced, and vowed that he would someday open a law practice in the school's community.
"I like being able to have a huge impact on people's lives," Katz said. "Before I go to court, I'm, most of the time, up in the middle of the night. I'm washing the dishes and straightening the house at like 3 or 4 in the morning ... Sometimes I have an epiphany on a case, sometimes I'm just nervous or stressed out.
"It's gratifying at the end, but I will tell you that the stress and the worry and the struggle, the repeated reviewing of the file or rereading the statute or whatever is a lot more than the gratification I take at the end."
Becoming an activist
Katz grew up in Evanston in a Jewish family - his father an emergency room doctor, and his mother a special education administrator in local public schools.
He described Evanston as diverse, though segregated. His elementary and junior high classes were integrated, and he made many friends of different races and ethnicities. But that changed in high school when he started taking advanced placement classes that tended to be made up of mainly white students.
He started taking Spanish classes in junior high school, and grasped the accent very well. His teachers asked him if his parents, grandparents, or even a nanny was Hispanic - which wasn't the case. He simply loved studying Spanish, and it became one of his favorite classes.
As a high school student, he participated in rallies against the Ku Klux Klan in places like Springfield, Ill. He also participated in his school's model United Nations and the speech and debate team.
As an overweight teen, Katz said he lost about 90 pounds his junior year, and at the same time learned an important lesson that he carried with him into adulthood.
"From one minute to the next, I went from being this obscure, frowned-upon, criticized [person] where in junior high school they used to grab the sides of my rolls when I was walking through the hallways; and then senior year, all of a sudden, people would ask me if I was the same guy.
"Everybody treated me in a totally different way. So that had a huge impact on me. I was sort of blown away by how superficial our society really was. That was a very powerful learning experience for me."
As a college student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he began building what would become a significant connection to the Latino culture and community.
Growing up, he didn't really connect with any particular group. But the Latino community accepted him, and he found a place where he belonged so he immersed himself in the culture and the language.
Katz studied history and education at the University of Illinois, and really began to ignite his political activism within the Latino community.
For example, Katz's friend asked him to take his place at a debate in the student union against the College Republicans about California Proposition 187 - a 1994 ballot-initiative requiring all immigrants to provide proof of lawful residency to attend public schools and get hospital care - and a similar House bill a local state representative suggested, he said.
"I gave this talk at the union and was kind of loud, citing statistics and I made the College Republicans look really bad," he said. "I had the whole union supporting me. It was a crowd of largely Latino students who had filled the hall we were in ... Bizarrely, overnight I was propelled into pseudo-fame among the Latino community in Champaign.
"We had a big event, a March for Justice, with 500 people, mainly against Proposition 187 and also cutbacks on affirmative action benefits and other things that were ripe at that time."
In the summer of 1994 he co-organized Zapatista Solidarity at the University of Illinois, a group organized to support the Mexican indigenous people.
Katz served as one of 4,000 participants from 44 countries at the International Encounter of Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism as a representative of the University of Illinois chapter. He talked with activists and with the Zapatistas in Lacandon Rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico.
"To actually engage the world around you with many, many other bodies at a rally or protest, I think is something very gratifying, very satisfying and it makes you feel more engaged in society and connected to humanity," he said.
He studied at the University of Granada in Spain in fall 1995, and traveled to Mexico City in the summer of 1996 with 11 other students to study the history of the Mexican Revolution, and the life of Emiliano Zapata.
He was an international reporter from 1995 to 1996 for the radio program, "Labor Beat," on Champaign Public Radio. He provided analyses of the international labor movement from Mexico and Spain. He also wrote a regular column for the Daily Illini student newspaper about social justice.
Katz said his activist beliefs come from "my mom always yelling at my dad when he would say something gender- or race-provoking. My dad grew up in Dallas. His father was very conservative in many ways. My dad didn't believe, I think, the prejudices he would shout out every once in awhile. But my dad also very much was and still is a lover of history and politics and he studied history as an undergrad. We would always talk about the Holocaust and Reagan and those days.
"A lot of it was from an intellectual, not just a historic sense of Jews coming out of a tradition of suffering and injustice, but also an intellectual understanding and hope for a world of social justice and an understanding of the fact that the one we are in is far from it."
Meeting his inspiration
Katz wanted to be a high school teacher his entire life, despite his mother's warnings that it is not a lucrative profession.
"My goal was to teach in a predominantly Latino or Mexican or Spanish-speaking inner-city high school," he said. "I applied and was hired right away at the interview."
He taught U.S. history, U.S. government and law, the history of Latin America, world studies, and economics at Farragut, which emphasizes a curriculum that combines academic instruction with work-study and vocational training.
He and another teacher, Charles Kuner, founded and coached a speech and debate team at Farragut. The team beat Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, Chicago's flagship magnet high school, for the tournament championship - one of its first debate tournament matches, he said.
Kuner, who taught for 42 years at Farragut and retired in June 2007, said Katz is a very innovative individual who always demanded a high quality of work and discipline from his students.
"He certainly has what I would call a great intellect," Kuner said. "He can retain and learn things very quickly. He's very enthusiastic. He's a caring individual. Once he makes a commitment to something he sticks to that commitment. He's also an individual who is very sensitive in terms of social causes, social justice, and things going on in the world or in the community or in the city or the country."
Katz earned a number of education awards and honors while teaching at Farragut.
He won an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant for the "Race, History and YOU" project he helped start at the school. The project involved hundreds of high school students from around Chicago attending a Saturday convention about the history of social justice. Farragut high school students taught the different classes.
He founded in 2000 a law program at Farragut, and organized the donation of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of law books to create the first complete federal and state law library in an American high school to be used for the law instruction of high school students, he said.
He taught his students how to read and brief court cases, and conduct court observations. Katz also helped start a legal clinic at Farragut, where lawyers would volunteer their time to do intakes and help the local community handle legal matters.
Katz said he showed his students the importance of activism, particularly environmental activism. He and his students protested two power plants in Little Village by linking arms from one end of the community to the other.
"I like being in front of a group of kids and engaging them and inspiring them to learn more and to think critically about the world around them, and to take them away from the day-to-day violence in the neighborhood and their material worries and partying," Katz said. "I feel like I made a difference."
After teaching for a few years, he considered going to law school.
"We did a lot of projects, and I felt I had an impact," he said about teaching. "But I still felt impotent in a lot of ways as a teacher to affect a lot of the problems going on in my students' lives."
His students faced such issues as domestic violence, immigration concerns, and racism from law enforcement, he said.
"I think that kicked me in the butt to say, 'All right, don't just stay here,'" he said. "I've always been someone who thirsts for knowledge and sort of knowing it all - knowing the law and knowing my rights. I was also a student of the Holocaust. As a Jewish adolescent, we heard from survivors all the time, and I read a lot about that. That was always in the back of my mind and still is: What do you do when you get that knock on the door?
"And the legislature is permeated with people intent on dictatorial designs. That also was a motivator to know the law, and understand it so I would understand when others are playing games with the system."
He chose DePaul University College of Law's night program, and continued teaching high school.
He typically finished teaching at about 3 p.m., ran to the library to read cases for a few hours, and ate dinner in the student union before going to class. On days when his students had speech and debate practice, he cut it a little closer.
After completing law school in three years, he continued teaching at Farragut while at the same time opened his own law office. He used personal days so he could handle his cases in court.
But he realized after one semester that it was time to resign. After seven and a half years as a teacher, he became a full-time lawyer in 2004.
"I always knew that was what I wanted to do," said Katz, about opening his own practice in Little Village. "With my students, that was who I wanted to represent. I knew from the stories I heard that they weren't getting the right attention.
"I wanted a place for them to go and for their families to go that they would know without fail, without question, they would be taken care of."
Building a law firm
Opening his own law firm was both a scary and exciting experience, Katz said.
The ability to compassionately interact with the clientele is something he already knew how to do because of his experiences with his students and their families, he said.
"I did very little or hardly any advertising," he said. "I sort of grew into the business. It was a learning experience for me to be a business person. That was new more than anything."
Katz works out of his Cermak Road office, one of three Chicago offices. In this particular office, posters of such figures as the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez hang on the walls.
On a recent December morning, CNN en Español could be heard on the television, while La Raza newspaper, sat side-by-side with The New York Times on a nearby table in the waiting area.
By about 10 a.m. clients took up most of the waiting area's chairs.
Alex Linares, a paralegal at the firm, said he first met Katz as a student when he participated in the "Race, History and YOU" project. Even though Katz became a lawyer, he still runs aspects of the firm as a teacher would, Linares said.
For example, Katz tries to involve the entire staff in each meeting.
He has each person name one good thing, and one negative thing about the office, Linares said. They then go around the table and talk about how they can change each negative to a positive.
Katz also gives each new client a copy of "Law School for High School Students," a book he wrote in 2003 and self-published in 2007. He used the material to teach his students the basics of the law, and hopes his clients use the book to become aware of their rights.
"He's very direct," Linares said. "He likes to make decisions. A lot of it has to do with being a teacher up in front of a class. You are expected to know more than others, and motivate them to work harder."
Most of Katz's time these days is spent doing initial consultations and practice management.
He doesn't do as much court work as he used to, but will be in court maybe once or twice a week. He typically works six days a week, from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Katz said his law firm fills an essential need in the local Latino community. Spanish-speaking people do not always have access to legal help in their native language, he said.
Katz Law Office handles such practice areas as immigration, criminal defense, child custody and real estate. And all the firm's lawyers speak at least some Spanish.
Julissa Ruiz, an attorney in the Cermak office, said Katz makes his dreams a reality. And he's very creative when figuring out a legal strategy, Ruiz said.
"The minute I interviewed with him I thought I was in the right place," Ruiz said. "There is a stereotypical view of most law firms, which is they are very conservative. One of the main things I saw the minute I interviewed with him was that this is a place I need to be because it was so non-conservative."
"He has a vision, and he sets goals, and he sets ambitious goals, and follows through on them," said Gina Reynolds, a lawyer and a vice president of the firm. "He listens to the clients, and not only listens, but makes them feel like they are being heard. They feel very comfortable and are very trusting of him."
Chicago resident John Miranda came to Katz Law Office after reading the lawyer's occasional column in the Lawndale News for about two years.
Katz is currently helping him with a real estate matter.
Miranda said he is very impressed with the lawyer's compassion for the "common person."
"He seemed to appear to me to be concerned about injustices to others," Miranda said. "I was very impressed with the young employees he had there. I felt some form of pride for seeing our youth and the direction they are going."
Chicago resident Erika Lang heard about Katz Law Office through the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The firm helped her with a divorce and child custody case, she said.
"If you are going to have an attorney on your side, he is the one to have," she said. "When people think of attorneys they always think they are out for themselves. He is one of the few people in the community that is really trying to help the community.
"He does a really great job helping people that wouldn't otherwise be able to get help."
When Katz isn't practicing law, he spends time with his wife of over a year, Mayari. They live in the same neighborhood as the Cermak office.
His role models include Mahatma Gandhi, who Katz said was not only an activist but also a lawyer; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.; and Clarence Darrow, a lawyer and civil libertarian.
"It's tough being weird and being different, being this Jewish guy speaking Spanish," Katz said. "All my friends, the people that I am around every day, clients, are all Latino. I'm living in a Latino culture, and speaking Spanish just as much as I'm speaking English. It is different. And I don't think I have many peers, you know.
"It's lonely a lot of the time. But now also being a supervisor of a lot of people, it is lonely in a lot of ways."
Katz said he doesn't let himself get caught up in the hype that often exists over certain things.
He, for example, is not worrying about whether he has the latest cell phone.
He's too concerned with such matters as a client who could lose his residency.
"I think one thing I like about myself is that I'm somebody who doesn't just sort of go with the grain," he said. "I'm somebody who doesn't take things at face value or follow the traditional path.
"I'm somebody who steps back and says, 'Wait a minute. Let me see what is going on here.' This path might not be the easiest thing for me. It will probably be hard for me. In the end it will be more gratifying, and more fulfilling."