Kim Kupferer built a remarkable career as an Alameda County Public Defender for over 15 years before going into private practice. She was renowned for her exceptional preparation and unwavering commitment to fighting for her clients and was recognized for her fair and ethical approach and her deep respect for the court and opposition even when tasked with some of the heaviest criminal cases in the criminal justice system. Currently, Kim juggles between handling court-appointed death penalty and juvenile cases in her private practice, and managing Imagine Equus Farm, a peaceful sanctuary in the tranquil Blue Ridge Mountains that offers Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning and is a haven where horses and people can find healing and personal growth in a serene environment. For those with a busy law practice, this interview will reveal the therapeutic and stress-relieving effect of interacting with horses in nature.
A transcript of this podcast is available at lovethylawyer.com.
Former Alameda County Assistant Public Defender / Private Practitioner/ Death Penalty Defense
I know that there is a lot of negativity associated with the practice of law in general. The truth is that it is rare that client’s come to us because they are in a good place. It is often that we cross people’s paths in their worst and most vulnerable moments. Perhaps, this is in part why the 2018 Lawyer Well-Being study showed we didn’t have a lot of it. Beyond that, we work in a profession where we are continually expected to hold space for others, our own emotions have to constantly be quashed, we are expected to work unheard of hours and always win. Add to that then going home where we have children, husbands, partners, pets, parents and others relying on us with needs and expectations – and well, as you know, there are just never enough hours in a day. But we still do it and succeed day after day. The problem is that though we may appear wildly successful on the outside, inside there is no space left for us. Having been a heavy duty trial lawyer for 34 years, I understand.
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Attorney at Law
Kim Kupferer / Louis Goodman - Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:05
Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I'm Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I'm a lawyer. Nobody's perfect!
Today we welcome Kim Kupferer to the podcast. I've known Kim for over 20 years, mainly in her capacity as an Alameda County Public Defender. Kim had a reputation for being completely prepared, ready to do battle and battle she did, but always fairly, ethically and with the utmost respect for the court and opposing counsel. Few attorneys commanded that level of admiration.
Kim now runs Imagine Equus Farms, where both horses and people experience healing opportunities in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Kim Kupferer, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.
Kim Kupferer 01:11
Thanks Louis. It's great to be here.
Louis Goodman 01:13
Well, it's nice talking to you again. We haven't spoken in a while, ever since you left the Alameda County Public Defender's Office. How long has that been now?
Kim Kupferer 01:23
Well, you know, I actually was with the Public Defender's Office for 15 years and left in 2003 and then went into private practice. So I was in private practice until January of last year.
Louis Goodman 01:37
Wow. Okay, so I guess a lot of the time that I knew you, you were in private practice as well.
Kim Kupferer 01:42
Yeah, I left the PDs Office and started private practice and initially was just kind of hopping all over various counties, Alameda, and other surrounding counties. And then towards the end of my career, I ended up doing a lot of the court-appointed work on the death penalty cases and then juvenile cases where the kids were facing life without...
Louis Goodman 02:06
So, you really handled the heaviest sort of criminal cases that the criminal justice system can throw at somebody?
Kim Kupferer 02:13
Yeah, it was kind of cool because when I went into private, well when I was a public defender, I was on the homicide team for about seven years so I got a lot of experience during their kind of more heavy duty cases. And then when I went into private practice and doing those cases can kind of make it difficult to run your practice when you're a solo practitioner. But ultimately, I started doing, I took a definitely case out of Contra Costa County, we started taking cases in Alameda County and yeah.
Pretty much in 2011 I moved to North Carolina, and so I was primarily doing death penalty and juvenile cases during the time I lived here. But I would fly back and forth to California every month.
Louis Goodman 03:00
So where are you speaking to us from right now?
Kim Kupferer 03:04
So I am speaking to you from Western North Carolina on my 28 acre horse farm here in the fairs of the Blue Ridge Mountain called the Tryon Area, which is a big course area.
Louis Goodman 03:16
We're gonna get back to it, but very briefly, can you tell us what your farm is about and the name of it.
Kim Kupferer 03:24
Yeah, so my farm is called Imagine Equus Farm, and it's just being about having a horse and wanting to have horse faith. And my ex-partner was from this area and so I had seen this farm and ultimately bought it, and a lot sooner than I wanted to stop practicing. And so I kind of had the best of both worlds where I would come here and be with all the animals and then every month fly to California to handle my cases.
And I kept a place there where I would stay.
Louis Goodman 03:57
What was that like? Flying back and forth and being at one moment in this incredibly idyllic area in the mountains of North Carolina, and then being in the criminal courts in the Bay Area, dealing with death penalty cases?
Kim Kupferer 04:14
Yeah, so it was kind of this great balance for me, and I think that that is ultimately kind of what led me to creating Imagine Equus, which is my forever and now, which is doing wellbeing retreats for people.
So I started in 2016 training to do equine facilitated experiential learning. The mouthful there, but what it is, is it's not riding the forces and it's not therapy. What we do here is all groundwork, but it's all about connection. And maybe the better word is a reconnection with oneself.
You know how we get so kind of work so hard to become a lawyer and to, you know, you have this practice where you're going 24/7 and you get really good at it, but then you reach that place in your life where you're like, wait, what happened to me? Like where is, I don't, I don't have any time left for myself anytime. You know? And it's like, what happened to my joy? Like what are, what are the things in my life besides practicing law that I wanna do for me, and I think we've kind of lost the space for that.
One of the really wonderful things for me is getting that space and the more I got out of it and the more connected I became with the horses, the more interested that I became in bringing people here and letting people have that same experience.
Louis Goodman 05:39
Where are you from originally?
Kim Kupferer 05:41
Louis Goodman 05:42
Whereabouts in Southern California?
Kim Kupferer 05:44
I grew up in a place called Upland, which is off the 10 freeway. It used to be about a 45-minute drive to LA before traffic.
Louis Goodman 05:52
Oh. It's like, I thought maybe you'd gotten like further away or something. Yeah, my wife's from LA. She always talks about how quickly you used to be able to get places. So is that where you went to high school? Did you go to high school in Uplands?
Kim Kupferer 06:04
Yes. I went to Upland High School, played basketball. And did really well at that and got a full ride to go to Stanford. The Upland team had had a history of having these great girls’ basketball teams, and I was going to the state playoffs and always winning our league, so I was really lucky to be on that team and then was recruited across the country and really kind of wanted to stay in California.
Stanford was kind of perfect in all ways. It was a very challenging academic school. They had this great team and they had just put a lot of money into the program, and it was far enough away from home.
Louis Goodman 06:42
I have a few friends who've played division one sports, both men and women. It's my notion that going to college and playing a division one sport is a very different college experience than most people have. It's not necessarily better, it's not necessarily worse, it's just different. And I'm wondering what your comment about that is.
Kim Kupferer 07:03
I totally agree. I think it is different and it was really great for me. I mean, I absolutely loved Stanford and I absolutely loved playing basketball there. And you're also competing. It was, everything was graded on a curve. So you're competing against students that are, that's all they're doing, and a really big portion of your life when you're a division one athlete, every day is, you know, practice and training room and lifting weights and clean nails and meetings and watching film and yeah. So you, so it just kind of ups that competition and that level of focus that you have to have both on the court and then academically. It was a good match for me.
Louis Goodman 07:51
Yeah. Speaking of academics, what did you take up academically at Stanford?
Kim Kupferer 07:55
So I was an econ major, which I didn't use really until I went into private practice, I would say. But really it was important that Stanford, I think, just to get a well-rounded background. So I took a lot of classes and I knew I was kind of drawn to law anyways, and they would offer classes through the law school that undergrads could take. And so any time they did, I always took one of those classes and yeah, took a lot of psychology classes and writing classes and all things that I felt like really benefited me throughout my criminal law career.
Louis Goodman 08:32
When did you first know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
Kim Kupferer 08:35
Like when I was really young I used to always kind of argue for, I had a real sense of ... and wrong, and I would, if I felt like someone or something was being taken advantage of and not treated fairly, I would argue that side. And so really early on people were like, you should be a lawyer. And then my aunt was a court reporter in Los Angeles and worked in a really busy courtroom there. And so sometimes I would go visit her, and she would take me into the courtroom, and I'd get to sit with the judge or sit at counsel table. And yeah, I really liked it.
Louis Goodman 09:09
At some point, you in fact, did go to law school. Did you go straight through after college or did you take some time off between college and law school?
Kim Kupferer 09:19
Well, so I ended up blowing out my knee my junior year of college, so I had surgery. And then I ended up losing most of the year. So I went and played on an all-star team in Europe for that summer and I applied to Santa Clara and a couple other law schools. And when I got into Santa Clara, it was a good fit for me because it allowed me to continue to coach basketball there while I was going to law school.
Louis Goodman 09:48
So was it a pretty seamless transition?
Kim Kupferer 09:52
Louis Goodman 09:54
In what way was it not?
Kim Kupferer 09:56
At that time? Well, at that time there was no professional league for women. And really what I wanted to do was play pro. And I knew I wanted to go to law school, so coaching was the best option for me. But the hardest part of it was just, you know, game night. I love the coaching aspect of it and. But then game night, of course you wanna be the one out there. So that was, that was the hard transition to make. You're at the height of your game and then, then, then at that time at least they said, okay, you're done. There's no other options for you.
Ultimately, I made the transition to another court, the courtroom. But it was difficult to not, to not be able to, to move on to a different league and continue.
Louis Goodman 10:43
When you graduated from Santa Clara, you ultimately ended up at the Alameda County Public Defender's Office and then in private practice. I'm just wondering if you could just kinda walk us through that process a little bit.
Kim Kupferer 10:54
I decided I was gonna be a women's rights and a civil rights lawyer, and so my first year of law school, after that summer, I worked at the Equal Rights ... amazing work but I found that I was really bored just sitting in the office all the time. And the next firm I went to interview for a job as a worker in a labor law firm, and the guy who interviewed me was a complete jerk. I stood up to him, he offered me the job, and I turned it down. I walked across the street to the Federal Public Defender's Office who was offering a position for $5 an hour. The other job was 20 and I met with the woman who was the head of the office. She was amazing. It was a smaller office. They offered me the job and I accepted.
So that started my career in criminal defense work. I completely fell in love with it. The next year I became a certified law clerk, and I started working in Santa Clara County in the Public Defender's Office. And I got to go to court and argue felony 1538.5 motions and call witnesses. And it was amazing.
Then I took the bar and I applied at two places. I applied at Santa Clara where I had worked and I applied at Alameda and I had heard Alameda had a great Public Defender's Office. And I also really wanted to live up in Oakland. So I ultimately ended up accepting the job in Alameda County and started off as a Public Defender in 1988 or March of 88.
Louis Goodman 12:34
You said you were there for about 15 years. And then you went into private practice. I assume that you tried every kind of case imaginable as a Public Defender, some very serious felony cases in addition to misdemeanor cases when you were first starting out. What prompted you to leave the Public Defender's Office and go into private practice?
Kim Kupferer 12:56
Well, I loved doing trial work and I did well at it, so I got to be on the murder team and one of the things that was really nice about that in the Public Defender's Office was that you had your own caseload.
You could really work on the cases, develop a relationship with your client. And so I ended up doing that for over seven years. I felt really strongly about ... and representing people who are facing the death penalty. And so that's kind of what got me into the whole homicide team in that part of things.
When I left the homicide team after seven years, I became a supervisor in juvenile. You do this rotation in the Public Defender's Office for the next thing you know, I'm like doing jail interviews, doing misdemeanor court or, and it just wasn't all that fulfilling for me. I knew that I wanted to see the more serious work and more trial work. That was kind of what I was more passionate about.
I also, for me, it was important when you handle a tape that, not just put a Band-Aid on it, but my whole philosophy where it's like, let's figure out what the underlying problem is. Like why is this person here in the search place?
You know, you get a guy that has a good job, and he ends up getting multiple DUIs. There's, the guy who's got something going on, he's got a problem, either a drinking problem or a mental health or something, and so that's kind of what I became known for, is looking at the bigger picture of things and figuring out what it is we need to deal with so this doesn't just keep happening over and over.
And I felt like I reached a point in the Public Defender's Office where, I mean at one point I remember the chief assistant saying to me, Kim, you wanna do excellent work then all you're required to do is to be competent. You mean like a D? Like I like to do A work. You're saying D. And he is like, yeah, and I, at that point he said, wow, I don't, I don't, in my mind I was like, I don't know that this is the place for me anymore even though I had thought this is the place I would spend my career.
Louis Goodman 15:09
My sense of you is, I said in the introduction, and you know, I wasn't kidding, is that whenever I saw you in court, you just seemed incredibly prepared, interested in the case and the facts and the law in your client in a way that really, I don't know, very, very few attorneys really put out that vibe. And I always got that vibe from you when I would see you in court.
Kim Kupferer 15:32
Thanks, Louis. I mean, that was definitely, that was definitely what I was about, was yeah, that if I'm gonna do something, I wanna do it fully, you know, and I'm committed. And so, you know, I would ... them a lot and really get to know their history and the case and why things happened the way they did, what went through, and like, if you don't fully understand the person and why it happened, how can you represent them well? And I, I think that's part of why those sort of, I was gravitated with those sort of cases because you could feel, warn like you may get a difference for the person. Like even if I lose this case, which a lot of you know, you have the facts that are not on your side. But if this guy is gonna go away for a really long time, at least he's gonna wait, go away knowing that somebody cared and somebody was in there fighting for them.
Louis Goodman 16:31
If a young person was coming out of school, would you recommend the law as a career choice?
Kim Kupferer 16:36
I think what I would say now, knowing what I know, is that it's really important to have that balance in your life because it can become all-consuming and, you know, the ABA has come out with all this, these guides for attorney wellbeing and basically found out there's not a lot of wellbeing with attorneys. There's a lot of ... and alcoholism and mental health issues and so I think having balance in the work you do is important.
I remember thinking at one point, wouldn't it be great to just be able to like go in and work really hard and kick ass for like six months and then have six months so you can relax and recover and prepare again for it before you go back into battle.
Louis Goodman 17:24
What advice would you give to a young attorney who is just starting out in his or her practice?
Kim Kupferer 17:31
Like whatever you do, do what you feel passionate about, trying to find that thing that drives you, that you every day can feel like, yes, this is what I wanna be doing. I don't know, like my work, I always felt like I was helping people and so that allowed me to be, you know, driven to do it well.
Louis Goodman 17:53
Do you think the legal system's fair?
Kim Kupferer 17:55
It can be. I think that, I think that there were a lot of politics that got involved with a lot of the certain things, and now we're seeing a lot of that turning back.
Louis Goodman 18:06
Now at some point you transitioned out of law, you opened up the horse farm. I'm wondering what prompted that, and I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what sort of work you do at the horse farm, how that helps lawyers who go there, people in general, how it helps the horses, because it seems to me that it's to do both.
Kim Kupferer 18:30
It's pretty cool. You know what? So I moved here in 2011 and then continued to practice law for another decade, and what I found was that I could do this really intense work and then I would come back to the farm and be around the animals and I felt this sense of wellbeing, joy, you know, being around them. And so that prompted me to continue. It just was kind of this process. And then I heard about this style of working with the horses called equine facilitated experiential learning, which is instead of like being talked at, you actually work with people and they have experiences with the animals, and during the course of those experiences, instead of telling the person, oh, you need to do this or that, they learn it from the horses. They're such amazing teachers.
And my goal is that they are able to take a lot of what we've learned and use it with the horses back with them to the courtroom to enhance their skills and, and on one level, and also to be able to take that sense of wellbeing they feel here on the farm with the horses in the common ... that is created here, back to a stressful situation they may have there.
Louis Goodman 19:54
Let's say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Kim Kupferer 20:03
I would probably be doing the same thing that I'm doing, except I would have a lot more help. Today I spent the majority of my day working on building a new barn for this little cult we saved last week from going to slaughter.
And so yeah, so I ended up, I end up doing a lot of physical labor here that I can do, but I would definitely like more help with.
Louis Goodman 20:36
Let's say you had a magic wand and there was one thing in the world you could change in the legal world, the horse world, the farm world, anything, what one thing would that be?
Kim Kupferer 20:46
Oh, definitely more peace and compassion, people to have for themselves and for each other.
Louis Goodman 20:55
Kim, if someone wants to get in touch with you, perhaps they would like to come and stay with you at your farm for a period of time or they just would like to talk to you. What's the best way to get in touch?
Kim Kupferer 21:08
I have a website, imagineequus.org and that has my phone number on it.
Louis Goodman 21:16
The website is ImagineEquus.org ?
Kim Kupferer 21:22
Yes. Yeah, so one of the things that I've also done is kind of having this vision of bringing people to this place. I just felt like this farm was very healing and it has got a little waterfall and creeks and so part of my whole big vision was creating spaces for people to stay here. So I actually have a couple of tiny home cabins that are on the property, and then I got a chalet that was four miles from here. So I also rent those out through Airbnb and people wanted to come and have a few days like at the farm. But my primary purpose was to have those for the retreat so that when people come, they have such like a beautiful, relaxing place to be as part of the experience here.
Louis Goodman 22:10
Kim, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that we haven't discussed?
Kim Kupferer 22:14
No. I guess this, when I was doing the law work, I was really passionate about that and now that I've shifted to doing the work with the animals, with the horses we actually have a little here with ... anymore, we have miniature donkeys.
Now that I'm working with the animals, it's almost like my passion is now about bringing people here to have the same kind of experiences with them that I've had, that have been kind of life-changing. And so I just feel really compelled and excited and happy to be in this place where I can offer this to people.
Louis Goodman 23:00
Kim Kupferer, thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.
Kim Kupferer 23:07
It's been great talking to you too.
Louis Goodman 23:10
That's it for today's episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at lovethylawyer.com where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.
Thanks to my guests and to Joel Katz from music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I'm Louis Goodman.
Kim Kupferer 23:49
Really what I wanted to do was play pro. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I wanted to do, you know, like all those sorts of things.