UDC Law student Laura Newman sat down with Josh Basile ’13 to discuss his career and how his education at UDC Law and his life experiences shape his work.
Laura Newman: Tell us about yourself.
Joshua Basile: My journey has been for the last thirty-six years. Eighteen years ago, my life got flipped upside down as a teenager. I was on a family vacation at the beach. I was in waist-high water, and a wave picked me up, threw me over my boogie board and slammed me on my head. That day I shattered my neck and became paralyzed below my shoulders. I was on a ventilator for the first four plus weeks, unable to breathe. The only way I could really speak with my friends and family was by blinking with my eyes. When I did regain my voice, that day was when I really became an advocate for life, and I kind of changed my path and direction. Since then, I went back to school, graduated from David A. Clarke School of Law – finished magna cum laude – and it was an incredible three years at school. Now, I’m a medical malpractice attorney with Jack Olender and Associates, and I do a lot of disability policy work, changing different laws and policies at the state level, federal level. And I’m very involved in the disability community, both as a mentor and as a consultant for corporations. I like to stay busy.
Five in Fifty
Learn more about Josh Basile with five rapid-fire, random questions.
Newman: Why did you choose to attend UDC Law?
Basile: Well, first and foremost, being able to be a part of a public interest law school was something that, as an advocate, I just wanted to be able to get that clinical experience that a lot of law schools don’t have. UDC is famous for our clinics and being able to get in the Landlord Tenant Clinic, being able to do the Legislative Clinic, as well, that really spoke to me. It was local, too, which was great. It was less than twenty, twenty-five-minute drive in to school and back every day, so that was awesome, and you can’t beat the tuition rates from a law school standpoint, so I also liked that as well.
Newman: How do you feel attending UDC Law prepared you for your career?
Basile: It allowed me to strengthen my voice to the next level. Undergrad, as a communication major, I really wanted to strengthen my voice and get better at becoming a public speaker, being able to market, being able to reach target audiences. But with law, [communication skills] can open so many doors to whatever you want to do at the next level of advocacy, and you know, it taught me how to think like a lawyer, how to prepare myself as a lawyer. And it was definitely a skillset that changed my life as an advocate. I feel like I gained superpowers during my law school days to really be a changemaker, and I don’t take that for granted. I’m doing everything I can. Each day I wake up with the purpose to not only better the lives of my clients as a medical malpractice and catastrophic injury attorney, but also as a consultant, with my clients but also through my nonprofit – Determined2Heal – where we help simplify the transition for newly injured families that have been impacted by spinal cord injuries, and we have an incredible website called Spinalpedia.com where it’s all about mentoring and being able to connect with families to let them know that they’re not alone. They have someone who has their back. And what we do is we take content on the internet, whether it’s videos, images, articles. With our videos, we now have over twenty-four thousand videos broken down by physical functionality. So, if you put your exact movement in within our tag system. You’ll have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand mentors to show you what’s possible within that world. If I was one level above my injury with my spinal cord – there’s thirty-one different vertebrae that make up your spinal cord – and if I was one level above, I’d be on a ventilator. One level below that, I’d begin to have more use of my biceps. One level below that, use of my triceps. It keeps going down and creates a different world of functionality, as each muscle group really is a different world of what you can do with your daily living. So, being able to connect with the spinal cord community and let them know what’s possible. I love getting early on in the family’s lives, because the earlier you can get, you can get them on a different path.
I know for me from a mentoring standpoint, I had certain people that came in my life early on. There was this guy, Tim Strachan. So, I was injured at Bethany Beach in Delaware. Ten years earlier, he was injured on Bethany Beach in Delaware, less than – I think – ten doors down [from] where I was injured. Basically, he was an All-America quarterback, had a full ride to play at Penn State, and he broke his neck, and that path changed for him and brought him on a new one. It brought him to home. It brought him to community college, then to undergrad, and then he graduated from Georgetown and fell in love, got married, and had kids. And for me, learning that Tim did that, it was just like, you know what I can do that, too, and it gave me wheel tracks to follow in.
Just having mentors in general, whether you have a spinal cord injury, or you have a disability, or you don’t have a disability at all, mentors are incredible to allow you to not be alone on this journey, there’s no reason. I tell every single family that I mentor that you need to become the captain of your ship, and that means basically you’re in control of what direction you go on your life’s voyage, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. It’s important to have crewmates and friends and family and all those people to support you on the way to where you need to go. But you’re in charge of that direction and being able to have them have your back just makes it that much easier on your life journey.
Newman: Talk to us more about your current work.
Basile: With Jack Olender and Associates, we do medical malpractice. Mr. Olender has been at this for many years. He’s known as the King of Malpractice. He’s one of the greatest plaintiff attorneys to ever practice law in the United States and has been recognized for that time and time again. So, I very much love working for Mr. Olender and serving our clients. I just mentioned Determined2Heal and talked a little bit more about mentoring and some of the things that I’ve got going on right now. I’m always trying to find ways of breaking down barriers for anybody but especially for people with disabilities. And one of the biggest barriers that exist today is in transportation. When a driver with a disability needs to fill up their gas tank, a lot of times they go to the gas station, and they have to honk their horn, begging for somebody to come out to help fill up their tank – or they have to ask a bystander. “Can you please fill up my tank for me? I don’t have the use of my hands to grab it.” I can drive my car with different adaptive equipment but using the gas nozzle takes a lot more movement for many. And a lot of times, it takes a lot to get out of your car, to transfer into a manual wheelchair, to be able to get out of your van where your ramp comes out and you’re coming into oncoming traffic.
So, what I ended up learning was in Europe, there was a service called fuelService, an app that connects drivers with disabilities with local gas stations willing to fill up. My friend who’s a paraplegic who started it could not tap into the U.S. market. As an advocate, I said, you know what – I’m going to give it a go. About three years ago, we started doing demo sites around the DC/Maryland area and said, “you know what? This this can absolutely work in the U.S.” And about a year and a half ago, we launched our first live site. And basically, since then, we now have over five thousand gas stations across the U.S. that are using the service. I’m super proud about it, and it’s transforming how drivers with disabilities can fuel up and confidently go about their ways to live life, work, and be a part of society.
Another thing that I’m super passionate about is breaking down barriers to access and inclusion and really breaking down barriers for workers with disabilities. So, in Maryland, for the last five years, I’ve been working with Governor Hogan and his administration. There’s a program called Employed Individuals with Disabilities. Forty-five out of 50 states have Medicaid buy-in programs, and this is Maryland’s Medicaid buy-in program. What it does is it allows workers with disabilities to maintain their Medicaid. And for something like myself, I need Medicaid to be able to keep my caregiving and to be able to have access to the proper health care supports I need in the community. Private health insurance won’t pay for that. The only place that really pays for that in today’s world is Medicaid for someone who has a significant disability. So, in order for me to continue working, I need Medicaid. When Employed Individuals with Disabilities programs started in the early 2000s, they had all these caps on income – you can only make three hundred percent of the federal poverty level. You could only save up to ten thousand dollars in assets. And a lot of times, if you even thought about getting married, you’d get kicked out of the program because it would be joint income, which prevented many, many, many families from ever getting married, and they just became cohabitated partners for life, or it forced them to get happily divorced, and that’s just not good policy. There’s a lot of other things with it: it forces you to retire at age 65. If you can only save ten thousand dollars, you can’t retire at 65.
So, there’s all these different rules, and we ended up creating a willing to work campaign to be able to change this, and after four years of advocacy, I’m proud to report on October 1 – we’re recording this at the end of September – so just in a few days, the administration will be lifting all income and asset limits for workers with disabilities in the state of Maryland. So, I’m super proud of that. And that will be in October, which is national disability employment awareness month. It’s perfect timing. And I’m super proud about that.
Newman: How does drawing on your own experiences allow you to be a better attorney?
Basile: I always – as an attorney, as a law student and as a graduate of law school – I’ve always considered myself a nerd. I’m a proud nerd. I love being a nerd. As a medical malpractice attorney with a disability, I feel like I’m an empathetic nerd. I get to understand what my clients have gone through and what they are going through and being able to support them, not only through their litigation journey – which oftentimes can take anywhere from two to four years, which is very emotionally draining. It’s time-consuming. It can be a very long process. So being able to be there for them with genuine empathy, I feel like it differentiates me from most attorneys that are in the medical malpractice and in the plaintiff world.
Also being someone that has navigated the system of Medicaid and benefits, I also can be of extreme value to them on how to better navigate their journey as well. I do find myself kind of – especially with the lawyers that I get to work with at Jack Olender and Associates – we kind of create the dream team for families that come our way because we give them the full package and then some. I absolutely love that. When it comes to lifecare planning, I feel like I have a unique set of skills of fully understanding what it takes to live a full, meaningful life in the community – and safely in the community – and the costs associated to make sure that that’s done right. Too often, lawyers end up creating boilerplate lifecare plans where they just reuse for each kind of client that they have within a certain group, but lifecare plans very, very much need to be built in a customized basis for that unique individual – where they live, the state they live in, the supports they have in place, their functionality, their health. There are so many different factors that need to be weighed to be able to do that properly, and I very much enjoy doing that.
Newman: Share one memory from law school that stays with you to this day. Why do you recall that moment so well?
Basile: One of my favorite aspects of going to David A. Clarke School of Law – UDC Law – is that I had an incredible professor by the name of Robert Burgdorf. He is known as one of the godfathers of the ADA, and he has a disability himself. He had polio as a kid, and through his own legal path, he was at the right place at the right time and had great experience in being able to draft litigation and package it. He drafted probably sixty to eighty percent of the language that’s in the ADA right now. He was in charge of doing that and working with all the disability organizations across the country, but he kind of put the ideas to paper. Having him as my professor – as my advisor – was incredible and being able to take the Legislative Clinic through him and learning more and more about the ADA. It almost felt like I had a seat at the table during the early days in the late eighties and early nineties, as it was really coming together on paper, and then learning more of what it took once it became law to actually get the world and the U.S. to really be able to start a document and apply it and put it into reality. So, it was such a cool experience to be able to be a part of that class, and to have him as a professor. I’m very grateful for that.
Newman: I didn’t know that he was so involved and that he was a professor at UDC. So that’s really interesting. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a law student getting ready to graduate and launch their legal career?
Basile: I tell all families that they need to become an advocate for themselves. Whether it’s with a disability or a law student, it’s so important to understand that the advocacy game. The advocacy game is not only for your clients; it’s also for you as a student learning that you need to fight for your future. So much of that can come down to networking and being able to create the right relationships.
So many people want to be a part of your journey. They want to mentor you. They want to have different touch points to help you get to where you need to go in your life. So don’t ever kind of shut yourself off in the world thinking that you have to do it alone. Anybody that’s doing it alone in today’s world, especially in the legal world, is at a severe disadvantage. Allow people to teach you, learn from their mistakes, learn from their triumphs, learn from their experience, which will allow you to become a better attorney. It’s going to just be a much easier path, much easier road forward as you’re practicing law. So much of law school is going to just teach you how to think like a lawyer, but once you get into the real world, experience is what’s going to divide you from other people. Getting those experiences on your own but also getting the experiences through others. It’s a valuable opportunity for you to really better your future.
Newman: Was there a student organization for people with disabilities at UDC Law when you were here?
Basile: Yeah. So, it was formed one year before I was there as the Disability Rights Advocacy Society, and I had the pleasure of being the treasurer for it and organizing a lot of different events. And it was a great organization. We did a lot of ADA compliance checks when we moved to a new building during my stay – the building that you’re in right now [at 4340 Connecticut Ave. NW). We weren’t in that my 1L year, so we ended up moving over my 2L year. That was a great experience. I also worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia, doing a lot of ADA compliance work while I was in law school, and that was a transformative experience.
I also started and founded the Student Trial Lawyers Association while I was in school. I don’t think it exists anymore, but it was a great student organization.