Behind the billboard: Joumana Kayrouz's against-all-odds story
Published: April 22, 2014
"Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” — Charles Lamb
Driving past no fewer than eight images of her likeness, advertisements on buses and billboards, we arrive at the residence of Joumana Kayrouz. Located in Bloomfield Hills, the house is opulent without being gaudy, tasteful in its hugeness. Pastel Easter decorations pepper the topiaries outside the sheet-glass entrance, multicolored eggs and hot-pink muslin flamboyant against the slate and marble palace. Ms. Kayrouz has just arrived home from meeting the president of the United States, her third or fourth meeting, she cannot quite remember. She stands in her driveway and asks the reporter to meet her at the front door as she poses for a photograph with two people, likely one of dozens she has smiled for during her day, which as usual, began before dawn.
A French Bulldog explodes from the front door as she opens it, barking above its size, sniffing the newcomer. Inexplicably it wears two collars, one reading “Star Wars.”
“Oh, Prince Pierre,” Kayrouz calls, her hands on her thighs, bending slightly as one would speak to a naughty and beloved child. The dog growls at the interloper then loses interest. “Please come inside. Sit and I will meet you momentarily.”
The entrance to her great room appears to contain a guest book on a green marble podium. Two symmetrical staircases descend from a catwalk hallway and envelop the front door like the open arms of a hug. The room is homey and comfortable for its size, yet retains the air of a not-quite-private space, used for entertaining. It’s here Kayrouz regularly holds charity events for a number of causes and politicians, with guests numbering in the hundreds.
She returns with a bottle of water for her guest, and apologizes for her exhaustion. She is just getting over bronchitis and has lost nearly a week of work in bed. Speaking in formal English — never using contractions and with the clipped accent of a native Arabic speaker and the faintly British inflection of a colonial primary education, Kayrouz speaks at length of her life, past failures and triumphs, hopes, fears, dreams.
“Law school was torturous,” she says. “I had no role models, no mentors—”
She is interrupted by a phone call asking for her time and the use of her house in another fundraiser. She excuses herself, answers the call and with six quick words dismisses it until tomorrow.
“Now, where were we?”
Just a few days older than 50, Joumana Kayrouz may offer one of the most compelling portraits of the American Dream that southeast Michigan has to offer. In the midst of the 30-year Lebanese civil war, she arrived in the United States with $1,000 in her pocket, half a college education and limited English language skills. Since then, she has built the second-largest personal injury law firm in Michigan, employing about 70 people, including a large team of lawyers. It’s the only major personal injury law firm in Michigan owned by a woman, and wields an advertising budget of approximately $4.3 million dollars a year. She holds a degree in ethics from Yale University, speaks four languages — English, Arabic, French and Italian, and is flawless in all but the last — and metro Detroiters can see her face on more than 750 billboards and buses, the wallpaper of the city.
She is probably also the most visible Arab-American in southeast Michigan — an area of the world with one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East. She’s been a trailblazer in her profession, one traditionally dominated by white Jewish men, and to many who know her, she’s a quiet feminist icon. She serves as a cultural ambassador between Lebanon and the United States, and is an enormous donor to progressive politicians, especially those who advocate for the rights of women. She gives approximately 20 percent of her wealth to charity, tithing in accordance to her profoundly felt religion, and serves as a role model to many in the legal profession and the immigrant and Arab-American communities in Detroit.
She is also the butt of sexist jokes and scoffing on social media and comment sections of often tongue-in-cheek media pieces, regularly receives pointed and public questioning over her appearance and success, which men in her profession, frankly, do not receive — imagine open discussion of top competitor Sam Bernstein’s reproductive organs — and is the subject of perennial rumors that she is the figurehead for a firm actually headed by a man, or that her advertising budget is paid for by a boyfriend, or that a husband with deep pockets is supporting the firm, or that her advertisements are subsidized by a male doctor to which she refers cases or …
Notice, all of the rumors involve a man.
Most of us interact only with her image, an Arabic name and the single word, “Injured?” This leaves lots of room for interpretation, space for us to project our thoughts and fears upon that face, to assume what kind of person must live behind it. She doesn’t necessarily fit into the comfortable stereotypes of how successful women look, or how an Arab immigrant dresses, or the demographics of a personal injury lawyer.
The differences between people who know her and those who assume they do from her photograph are stunning. Every last person we spoke to for this story who knows Kayrouz had nothing but sterling things to say about her, many absolutely gushing.
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