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She arrived in New York City with $400 and a dream. While it sounds like a cliche, for Stacey M. Gray, an ambitious 27-year-old black woman who became a civil rights sole practitioner, it was a reality. In the last year and a half, Gray has sued such giants as Amtrak, Fleet Bank, Lufthansa — and even the American Civil Liberties Union — for discrimination. Not bad for someone who introduced herself to New York through a summer job in 1997. After wrapping up her second year at University of California at Berkeley School of Law, she came east with $400, no credit card and no place to live. What she did bring was determination to find a summer position. But not just any job. She wanted to work for an experienced civil rights attorney who specialized in police misconduct. “I thought it would be cake to find such a job in New York,” said Gray, laughing. After multiple failures, she armed herself with a stack of resumes and showed up at the door of Jonathan C. Moore, a respected civil rights lawyer in Manhattan, who specializes in government misconduct. But the receptionist refused to allow her to meet Moore, saying that she had to have an appointment. The doorman also refused to call the attorney on her behalf, but gave her an invaluable tip — Moore’s paralegal would be downstairs soon for a smoke. Gray waited until the paralegal appeared and used her powers of persuasion to convince the paralegal to put her resume on the lawyer’s desk. The next hurdle was securing an answering machine in case a lawyer actually called her for an interview. But all she could spend was $10. She asked a clerk at K-Mart where she could find an answering machine for that price, and the clerk bought her one. The following day, Moore called and she accepted the summer job. ON HER OWN “My vision is so clear to me. So I learn and I listen, but I do it my way,” she said. “And luckily God protects children and fools,” she joked. After graduating from law school in 1998, she returned to New York and worked as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society for almost a year before starting her own practice. She rents space in an office next to Moore and Ronald L. Kuby. Some of her suits, like the one against Amtrak for throwing a black man off the train for wearing a vulgar t-shirt, she handles as co-counsel with Moore. Others, like the suit against the Harlem Boys Choir for sex discrimination, she handles on her own. On Thursday, she sued the ACLU in the Southern District of New York for age and race discrimination on behalf of a 50-year-old Hispanic employee who worked for the civil liberties group for 17 years. The ACLU has said the claims are groundless. “Stacey has tremendous passion and a righteous indignation about issues,” said John Burris, a nationally known civil rights attorney in Oakland, Calif., who represented Rodney King and has handled other highly visible police misconduct cases. Burris employed Gray for a year as his law clerk while she was at law school. “Her youthfulness causes her to look at things from a fresh point of view,” said Burris. Gray is determined to succeed on her own, regardless of her age, race or gender. For her, the stares she gets from other attorneys, judges and even her own clients are not an obstacle. Although clients are usually familiar with her through the lawyers who refer cases — she does not advertise — clients are surprised when they first meet her, she said. “If you want to make a person quiet, bring me in the room. People are so shocked, they are silenced,” she said, smiling. “It’s the combination of ‘black woman and young.’ I’m an anomaly to everyone,” she said. Her blunt confidence in her self and her commitment to each client’s case, she said, in the end win them over. “It’s difficult for older people to see a young person demand respect. And it’s difficult to see a black person and a woman demand respect,” she said, becoming much more somber. “But I don’t accept this treatment.” But not every referral is won over. After starting work for a few black female court reporters on a discrimination case last year, her clients were concerned about her age. Eventually, even though a judge referred the clients to Gray, they went somewhere else. “Being an African-American woman and young, there is no mold for me to fit. Since there is no mold, I have to rely on myself and find the confidence and the skill to take on a big case and to push it further,” she said. Gray is “up against the odds, but I think she can handle it,” said Moore. “She’s not afraid to jump in and get her hands dirty and handle tough issues,” he added. CLEAR VISION Growing up in a highly educated and progressive black family in Massachusetts, Gray said she always wanted to fight injustice, and always wanted to have her own business. Her mother is an urban planner and her father, Marshall Murray, is a Circuit Court judge in Milwaukee. According to Gray, she is driven to going after the big boys and unafraid to challenge powerful people or entities, claiming that it just makes her work harder and better. According to her, she was fighting discrimination long before she became an attorney. While in college at Duke University, a co-worker at a retail store sexually harassed her, she said. After her boss refused to do anything about it, she took charge. She read, collected evidence, wrote letters to the store’s attorney and filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case settled a couple of years later. “What’s created me is that I’ve experienced discrimination but I also have experienced moments of intense freedom,” she said. “I actually feel that I can accomplish everything I want. If I went up against anyone I could win,” she said. Now as a sole practitioner, Gray handles only civil rights cases and some criminal matters. She said she currently has 10 active cases, and in August will be presenting information on police misconduct in South Africa at a United Nations conference on racism. “She’s like a young filly that just wants to run,” said Burris. Gray claims that she wants to build her firm, hire associates and be known across the country. But she wants to practice law for only about 20 years. She has many goals, she said, such as writing, starting another business and teaching. “I’m a focused free spirit,” said Gray. “At 45, I want my cases to change the way people live.”

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