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How the Top Law Firms Adopted Gay Rights as a Cause

by Peter Cassels
Contributor
Wednesday Oct 19, 2011
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There was a time when the nation’s major big-city law firms weren’t exactly homophobic -- they wouldn’t get close enough to the subject of homosexuality even to disparage it. As for gay attorneys; there weren’t any, at least officially. As for gay-rights lawsuits, they wouldn’t have touched them with a 10-foot Harvard crew oar.

If gay attorneys were helping the community, they did so from deep within their firms’ closets. Now, not only are the nation’s top law firms representing us, they’re doing it pro bono, which is Latin for "on their own dime."

That’s right: Those fabled "white shoe" law firms, the ones with armies of attorneys. The firms don’t charge such clients a cent. They normally charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour.

We’ve come a long way from the dark days depicted in the film "Philadelphia," when attorney Tom Hanks was shunned for the double sin of being outed and having AIDS.

The term "white shoe" derives from the time when only upper crust WASPs staffed the leading East Coast law firms. They wore white bucks -- suede shoes with pink rubber soles still the favored footwear of preppies everywhere.

Today, diversity is a hallmark of such firms. These firms employ attorneys and support staff of every ethnic and racial variety as well as sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, they seek them out in an upper-crust form of affirmative action.

Taking on Serious, Vital Cases

Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest advocacy organization litigating LGBT rights, described how it used to be before a sea change in attitudes within the big firms.

"I have spoken to attorneys who did pro bono work for Lambda decades ago," Gorenberg said in an interview. "They told me that they did it on their own time hiding in the library on a Saturday morning because they felt they would not be accepted. It’s not that way any more."

With about 20 attorneys in five locations, from New York to Los Angeles, her organization might be considered a mini-white-shoe firm if it were a for-profit enterprise.

Gorenberg cited two reasons why major firms underwent an attitude adjustment.

"One is the growing realization that gay rights cases are the cutting edge of a major equal rights movement in the country right now," she observed. "There was a dawning understanding that this was serious work with life-changing consequences."

Gorenberg described what she called the "dictionary syndrome" that was common before the sea change: "In gay rights cases, we were getting decisions where a judge opened a dictionary and was, for example, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Case closed. Then we started gaining traction with real legal analysis that had bite and was acknowledged by the courts."

The other reason for the attitude change was that lawyers at the big firms began coming out of the closet. "The visibility of LGBT attorneys and straight ally attorneys has brought significant resources to Lambda Legal and sister organizations," Gorenberg noted. "When people can be out and honest about who they are, they are comfortable telling their firms, ’pro bono work is a way we should give,’ and they are being taken seriously."

Legal Eagles Who Love a Challenge

Vickie Henry, senior staff attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders in Boston, echoed Gorenberg’s analysis. She described what sparked the sea change at GLAD: its lawsuit that ultimately made marriage equality legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

"In the early years, GLAD had cooperating counsel that were usually solo practitioners," Henry explained in an interview. "By the time the Goodridge case got to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, nine out of 10 of the largest law firms in the state had signed and submitted amicus briefs. The tenth was working on a legislative change."

EDGE interviewed attorneys at white-shoe firms by e-mail or phone to find out when and why they began working for the LGBT community and how they are personally involved.

Skadden Arps is one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the world. Forbes magazine calls it "Wall Street’s most powerful law firm." With more than 1,800 attorneys, it has 23 offices across the globe, from New York to Beijing, Paris, Moscow and Vienna.

Skadden has been litigating gay rights cases since at least 1990, according to Cliff Sloan, a partner based at its Washington, D.C., office. He was among the firm’s attorneys who filed an amicus brief regarding sexual orientation for Lambda Legal and GLAD with the U.S. Supreme Court in "Christian Legal Society v. Martinez."

In a 2010 decision, the court upheld, against a First Amendment challenge, a policy recognizing student groups at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

"We were very gratified that Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion cited our brief and our reasoning," Sloan said.

"I believe that the issue of gay rights presents one of the most compelling human rights and civil rights issues of our time," he said when asked why he has an interest in such work. "It is especially important to try to contribute at a time when many fundamental issues are being considered and decided."


Next: Fighting Marriage & Adoption Bans



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