An ear for the law: Attorney caters to clients with hearing impairments


By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Whether she's on the court, or in one, Kathryn M. Cushman has carved out a successful career.

In high school and college, Cushman established records with her play in women's basketball. And as one of the few attorneys in Michigan able to communicate in American Sign Language with deaf clients, Cushman offers a level of comfort and service to the hearing-impaired community.

"Everyone needs a lawyer they can trust and communicate with in their own language," Cushman said. "And I offer the environment where clients can come in and we can communicate one on one, and build trust."

Cushman, 34, works for the Troy firm of Hickey, Cianciolo, Fishman, and Finn. But playing basketball as a youth may have been the one factor that brought her to where she is today.

She was born in Flint, and her father, Larry, was a youth director at the YMCA, and later became the director.

"It was a pretty great job for your dad to have," Cushman said. "I grew up at the Y, had a gym at my disposal, and competed in all the activities year-round."

Later, she would bus with other kids to a wave pool in Saginaw, or to a Detroit Tigers game. When Cushman got older, she would help her father run some of the summer camp programs. Cushman, who prefers being called the less-formal name of Katie, said she was not a tomboy, but had a nice balance of "being girly" and athletics.

"I liked bows in my hair and getting dressed up, I had my nails painted, but I was definitely a jock," she said.

Her mother, Geraldine, taught at a Catholic school in Flushing, retiring recently after 35 years there, Cushman started playing basketball there in the fifth grade. She played several other sports, but dropped those in high school to concentrate on basketball.

"That was my game of choice," she said.

She would shoot for hours on end at the Y, or in the family driveway, as her father patiently rebounded for her. And her dad would make it into a competition for young Katie. Like if she made X number of free throws in a row, she would get rewards. One summer the reward was a new pair of expensive basketball shoes.

"It was something we had fun doing," Cushman said.

Cushman also played ball with the boys at the Y. She was not tall, but learned to get off a fast shot, and "I could run all day." Playing with the boys, Cushman learned to play a little rougher.

"And my dad would push me around pretty good, too," she said. "So I learned some toughness that I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else."

Her father also instilled in her the importance of shooting free throws from the foul line, a constant no matter what gym she was in. The hoop is the same height. The line is the same distance from the basket.

"And if you can learn to shoot keeping your feet on the ground and not jumping and changing the variables of that shot, its always the same shot," Cushman said.

And her dad would "do silly things to try to get into my head" to help her free-throw shooting, like putting a towel over her head and making her shoot blindfolded, or waving his hands and yelling to try to distract her.

"I realized once I got into high school that there was nothing anybody could do in a gym that my dad or guys in the gym hadn't tried before."

The plan for Cushman was to attend Powers Catholic High School in Flint, and she played summer basketball between eighth grade and her freshman year with those girls on the varsity team. But when school started, Cushman played on the JV squad so she would have more playing time, helping the team to a 20-0 record. If she had played varsity ball, she would have seen only limited playing time.

"They were a solid group, and the team was so established they started five seniors, so it was a good decision for me," she said.

But she was called up for the state tournament later that year, and the team won the state championship, although Cushman saw limited action in the waning moments of several games.

"I remember keeping my mouth shut and I kept the ball moving," she said. "My dad said, 'Get out there and play good defense, keep passing the ball.' I kept the ball moving and I worked my tail off on defense. I knew my role."

Cushman started varsity ball for the next three years, but the teams lost in the quarter-finals twice and also lost the state championship her senior year. For her high school career, Cushman earned many honors, including first team All-State from 1992-94, Honorable Mention All-American in 1994 by USA Today, and was Powers all-time leading scorer with 1,413 points, although that record has been broken. Cushman was also a finalist in the state's Miss Basketball voting in 1994.

But as a sophomore, Cushman also decided to enter a career in law after taking an American Justice class and participating in Law Day events at the Genesee County Court on a mock jury trial.

"I thought it was so cool," she said. "That's what opened my eyes to law, and I knew that's what I wanted to do, that was my goal."

Cushman was recruited by colleges to play basketball, but chose Madonna University in Livonia, and a full scholarship, so her parents could watch her play and because she could play all four years. It paid off--Cushman led the Madonna Crusaders to its first 20 win season, still holds the all-time school career scoring record with 1,752 points and all-time career free throw percentage of 90.5%, and was the 1995 NAIA Division II Free Throw champion with 90.5%.

"It was real exciting and we had a real good time," she said. "It was hard work, but I got to play and go to school."

But attending Madonna gave her something else, too. The school had a large population of deaf students, and it opened her eyes to that culture. Year earlier, Cushman had been exposed to deaf kids at the Y when many from the nearby Michigan School for the Deaf attended programs. Madonna had several unique programs in sign language, so Cushman received two degrees from Madonna--a bachelor of arts in sign language, and a bachelor of science in criminal justice.

"I found it to be very interesting and something that was really intriguing to me, and something that I felt as a lawyer would be really a neat thing to assist the deaf community," she said.

After graduating from Madonna in 1999, Cushman was accepted to the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. In fact, she recalls writing her personal statement for application there on a bus en route to a varsity basketball game with Madonna.

Even though women's professional basketball was the choice of some elite college players, Cushman decided law school "would be a better investment." But she continued to play basketball while going through law school, practicing with the Madonna team and playing in women's leagues.

"It was a good outlet for me, good exercise and a stress reliever," Cushman said. "I needed that element because it was my life for so long."

During law school, Cushman clerked at several firms, including Hickey, Cianciolo, Fishman, and Finn. She was hired there after graduating and promoted her idea to cater to deaf clients.

"This is a great firm," Cushman said. "And since day one, they have been very supportive and flexible in allowing me to create this niche with deaf clients."

She handles family law, toxic exposure and occupational disease cases and other matters for the firm.

In 2004, she married Damon Tillman, whom she met through mutual friends. They have two children, Tess, 4, and Nora, 15 months. The only breaks Cushman has taken from playing organized basketball have occurred when she was pregnant. She and several of her college friends have played together for years, and the team, now known as The Skins, plays in a Sunday night women's league at Joe Dumars Field House.

"I feel like we're still back in the old days," Cushman said "I don't feel like I'm old. It's what I do. It's an element of my life I've always had. It keeps me sane. I miss it when I'm not playing."

Now, she and her running buddies are playing against younger players, some just out of college.

"But we can still shoot with them, and we can still run with them a little bit, and hold or own," she said. "But I dread the day we have to hang it up, because it's just something I've done forever. I'll play as long as I can."

Cushman said there are similarities between playing basketball and practicing law. Each requires a work ethic, years of practice, and the self-discipline for preparation.

"I yearn for the competition, and I enjoy helping people with what I do," Cushman said.

She is a self-proclaimed "sports nut," and has two seats and a section sign from the old Detroit Tigers stadium in her office. And she and her family rarely miss an opening day.

"It's like Christmas in our family," she said.

Cushman looks forward to playing basketball with her own daughters one day. And there's no question they'll be excellent free throw shooters, just like Mom.

"The experiences I've had and the people that I've met and the friends that I've made and the coaches that I've had were all great experiences," Cushman said. "I feel like I've been blessed in a lot of ways," she said. "My family, my job, and what I've been able to do."

Published: Tue, Apr 19, 2011