Licensed to practice law in Utah since 2011, Allebest is actually taking an involuntary break from the law. After practicing on his own for several years when no firm would hire him, last year he decided he needed to earn a regular paycheck. He works in the compliance department of a major financial planning firm in Salt Lake City.
Despite applying to work in various legal settings after law school, no formal job offers came his way. Still, Allebest was undeterred about practicing law. He realized the answer to his problem lay within him: he would hang his own shingle and help deaf people maneuver their way through the complicated legal system.
However, since he worried he would be stereotyped in that role, Allebest endeavored to represent hearing clients as well. “I didn’t want to be typecast, but my calling is to be a bridge between the deaf and the hearing,” he says.
Bridging the Gap
Allebest, the youngest of three children, was born deaf. Doctors suspect a virus was the cause. He was raised in Laguna Hills, Calif., in a family where everyone else could hear.
He learned to speak at a grade school that specialized in speech therapy for the deaf. In fifth grade, he was mainstreamed into a regular educational environment. His high school years were spent in a school where most of the other students were deaf.
In high school, most of Allebest’s peers didn’t know how to speak but he didn’t know how to speak using sign language. It was at that school he learned how to do so.
Undoubtedly, Allebest’s interest in the law was sparked by his father, a longtime attorney licensed in California. As a child, Allebest read books about law and watched CNN. As a member of his high school’s mock trial team, he consistently earned high marks when he played the role of a lawyer. He performed so well that his coach exhorted him to become an attorney because any other career would have been a waste of time.
As his law practice and reputation grew, Allebest knew he had discovered his calling. He found helping deaf and hearing-impaired clients navigate the legal system “fulfilling, because I’m helping make the world better for people like me,” he says.
There is no question in Allebest’s mind the legal system is too complex for a deaf person not educated in law to navigate on his or her own. He also believes those who toil in the judicial system, including judges, attorneys and police are severely lacking in the skills necessary to smooth that chasm.
A good example is when multiple sign language interpreters are needed in the courtroom for a single case. “A lot of judges don’t understand why there could be several sign language interpreters (in the courtroom). If it’s a family law issue and both parties are deaf, they each need their own interpreters, for ethical reasons,” he says.
Witnesses might also be deaf or hearing impaired, increasing the need for additional sign language interpreters. There might be hearing impaired or deaf people involved in a case that don’t know American Sign Language. They might communicate in other languages, so their sign language will differ from the American version.
“Trying to get other people to understand my clients and why things happen the way they did. Like a deaf person might flail their arms to communicate. It’s a very physical communication style," he says. While sometimes hearing people communicate themselves with their hands, the deaf often use their entire bodies. If a police man sees a deaf person flailing their arms, they might interpret that as an aggressive act, but that might be the only way that deaf person can communicate, Allebest says.
“People can somewhat understand what it means to be blind, but it’s hard to emulate what a deaf person experiences,” states Allebest. That chasm in understanding is a huge reason why Allebest says it’s difficult to explain to a jury why a deaf person behaved the way they did.
“Deaf people are very sensitive to body language. They are not trying to be belligerent,” he says. “The legal system needs a lot of education about dealing with deaf people,” states Allebest. Meanwhile, Allebest hopes to return to practicing law someday soon. “I miss practicing law because I like helping people. I’m a people person and I like to make a difference.”
Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.