For Richard Hanus ’88, a career in law was always in the back of his mind. Having his work turned into a play and a feature film, though? It’s safe to say that was not in the back, front, or even the side of his mind.
In 2018, however, that all changed with a phone call. That summer, Hanus was contacted by a representative from a not-for-profit theater company in New York whose founder had an idea to adapt the transcript of a deportation proceeding. Amid the political discourse around border walls and anti-immigrant rallies taking place around the nation, the idea for a play was created as an artistic response to the conversation and to provide a human example of what deportation means.
“Frankly, I never thought Arian [Moayed], or anyone else, was going to have the patience or appetite to read through this very, very thick legalese-filled file,” Hanus said.
The theater company founder, Arian Moayed, not only had the appetite for the legal documents Hanus provided, but also the skills to turn the court transcript into a successful dramatic production. Moayed is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Stewy Hosseini in HBO's “Succession,” and is also known for portraying Todd Spodek, the lawyer defending Anna Delvey in the Netflix series “Inventing Anna.” Away from the small screen, Moayed earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” Even with such an impressive resume, Hanus was uncertain immigration law could make for an entertaining performance.
“I remained skeptical,” he said. “In my mind there would be no way a verbatim transcript of these legal proceedings could be interesting to the public at large. However, he found a way and made a beautiful work of art.”
The adaptation, titled “The Courtroom,” tells the story of Elizabeth Keathley, a Filipina immigrant with a newborn baby who mistakenly registers to vote and faces deportation. The play debuted in off-Broadway spaces, including those not usually reserved for plays, such as the Thurgood Marshall Federal Courthouse, and was very well received. “The Courtroom” was honored with a Best of Theater award from the New York Times in 2019. But just as it was taking off, performances of “The Courtroom” were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The untimely disruption had one positive side effect, though, as it created an opportunity for the creators to share the story with a wider audience via a feature film. The adaptation of the play, also written by Moayed and directed by Lee Sunday Evans, is now ready for the masses and making its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this June.
“It’s pure luck for me that I got to connect with Arian, and the story of my client’s case became the subject of these stage and film productions,” Hanus explained. “It’s also a validation of the kind of work I do…, the kind of justice my client Elizabeth Keathley received and deserved, and the kind of justice that is attainable in our nation and is actually carried out every day, quietly.”
Helping get justice for individuals in immigration cases is something Hanus felt a desire to do at an innate level. His father escaped from Auschwitz and his mother was liberated from the same camp and, as his private practice’s website states, “helping individuals and businesses overcome obstacles when at the mercy of a complex system is what [his] work is all about.”
Hanus originally was drawn to the Illinois College of Law because of its reputation as a top school and was immediately taken with the faculty. He still vividly recalls the impact professors such as Peter Hay, Laurie Reynolds, Gerry Bradley, and John Nowak had in his legal education. He specifically recalls Tom Mengler, future dean of the College of Law, being exceptionally engaging and real. A student in his first class, Hanus remembers Mengler “making Civil Procedure as interesting as was possible.”
Though meetings don’t take place over a mug at Illini Inn or during a Bears game at Esquire Lounge like they did during his years in Champaign-Urbana, Hanus highly values in-person meetings in his day-to-day work. The pandemic has made Zoom as much a part of his job as everyone else’s these days, but Hanus stresses the importance of those face-to-face interactions.
“Most days I go to my office in downtown Chicago to meet with clients. Zoom, of course, has become a big part of my practice…but for clients facing exceptionally sensitive circumstances, I am of the firm belief that there is no substitute for in-person meetings,” he said. “When emotion and sometimes crisis are at play, the dynamic of an in-person conversation helps facilitate a deeper understanding of circumstances and goals. Just as important, in-person meetings are better at helping to develop trust—as important an element of the lawyer-client relationship as any.”
Those conversations were the basis for the success in court that later become “The Courtroom.” And though most lawyers will never see themselves depicted on a stage or a screen, Hanus believes that young lawyers should do what they are passionate about in order to find their own success.
“Don’t be afraid to do something different than your peers or take the road less traveled. When I started in immigration law, you could not find a less popular or prestigious field to practice in. But, when I learned more about it, I was able to see that it suited me, and it didn’t matter that people looked at me funny when I told them about it,” he said.
Funny looks or no, Hanus believes it is important that lawyers not be afraid of bumps along the way and seek out mentors to help them reach their goals in fields they find interesting. Considering countless film fans around the world will soon be watching his story unfold in their living rooms, Hanus just might be on to something.