Before she came to law school, Kara Ingelhart, ’15, was accustomed to academic debates in which the participants relied on a common set of facts or principles. As an undergraduate, she’d double-majored in biology and gender studies, and disagreements rarely cut to the foundation of people’s most closely held beliefs.
“In biology, there are right and wrong empirical answers, and in gender studies, there are different theories that you bandy about, but it’s often with fairly like-minded people. In both subjects … there’s sort of a baseline set of assumptions … especially when you’re debating with other scholars in your field,” she said. “But in the law you don’t do that at all.”
At the Law School, Ingelhart encountered a different level of argumentation, one that sometimes required her to undertake the delicate task of understanding, rather than immediately seeking to alter, foundational assumptions that differed from her own. She had to learn to change someone’s mind on an issue without rejecting their mindset.
“Every person you speak with on any issue, whether they differ from you or not, has a foundational belief, and they think it is rational or reasonable,” Ingelhart said. “And if you disagree with them, you need to respect that core belief and possibly try to work around it, investigating the cognitive biases or heuristics they might have used to reach their conclusion to see if that might be a way for you to help them change their mind or evolve on an issue.”
Ingelhart first learned these skills in Elements of the Law, and she refined them all through law school. Now she relies on this approach as a Law Fellow in the Midwest Regional Office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an organization that serves the LGBTQ and HIV communities through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.
“The court has a different mindset than LGBT advocates do and HIV advocates do. Law enforcement officers that I work with have a different mindset on my issues than I do,” said Ingelhart, who first joined Lambda Legal as a Skadden Fellow in 2015. “Those perspectives from people who might be oppositional to me, or who want to work in tandem with me as stakeholders, are valid because they’ve reached what they think is a rational belief. But I need to be able to think more broadly than, ‘I just want to change your mind.’”
In one case that was part of her policy work at Lambda, Ingelhart needed to convince law enforcement officers to rethink their process for protecting teens, particularly LGBTQ youth, who were involved with sex trafficking. Law enforcement aimed to remove youth as quickly as possible from the homes of suspected traffickers—a strategy that had been successful in certain circumstances and seemed to them to be a logical choice. But for LGBTQ youth, Ingelhart said, the situations are often far more complex—and she wanted the officers to understand how. LGBTQ youth who end up with sex traffickers often face greater dangers when they leave: they’re unwelcome and unsafe at home, and they often face bullying, harassment, and sexual violence in the foster care system. In many cases, Ingelhart said, they end up acting out or offending and wind up in the juvenile justice system.
“Their goal is to protect those young people and get them the resources they need to succeed,” Ingelhart said. “But the actual outcomes that we see on our side, especially as applied to LGBT youth, are quite the opposite. They are being pulled out of situations that might be stable for them or might be safer than their home life.”
Ingelhart wanted these teens to get the right resources and help—but first she needed to persuade law enforcement that their process wasn’t always making LGBTQ youth safer. To do this, she approached the conversation in a way that resembled the Socratic dialog she’d experienced in Law School. Instead of merely arguing that the officers were wrong to remove LGBTQ teens from the homes of sex traffickers, Ingelhart talked them through their process from beginning to end, asking questions and challenging assumptions along the way.
“You have to push back slowly at their process to highlight for them where the gaps are,” she said. “So we worked slowly through what it means to take someone out of that kind of situation, and then what it means to bring them in their interview room, and then what happens after that. Where do you send them?”
The perspective Ingelhart shared wasn’t one the law enforcement officers had considered. It hadn’t even occurred to them, she said, that some of the youth they encountered were LGBTQ. What’s more, they had seen their approach work in the past.
“They anchored to the young woman they had been able to help get back in with her parents,” she said. “And I was able to say, ‘Maybe what you think is the rule is actually the exception to the rule. That in applying it, more often than not, there’s this problematic outcome. So how can we work together to achieve something different?’”
The key, she said, was to establish a common language and common ground before digging in. “It’s being really open and honest about your definition of terms because often we talk past each other,” she said. “I can be talking to someone, and we’ll be using all the same words, but if we mean different things … we’re just talking past each other, and it’s not productive.”
Both the Lambda advocates and the law enforcement officers, after all, talked about protecting youth. But they had different ideas about what that meant and how to achieve it. And although they didn’t come to immediate resolution, they did establish a productive framework.
“If you [assume] that their viewpoint is valid—and we know that their viewpoint has worked in the past—then it’s not so abrasive to pull the layers away,” she said. “And we can have more meetings going forward instead of being shut out.”
My Chicago Law Moment is a series highlighting the Law School ideas and experiences that continue to resonate after graduation. Video produced by Will Anderson.