The OPIA Blog

LGBT Rights Law: A Career Guide

With the end of the summer at OPIA comes an exciting moment: publication time! In preparation for the students’ arrival in September, OPIA staff have spent the summer planning the year’s events and getting our job search guides ready, in addition to running workshops to help keep advising sessions as useful as possible. In the next few weeks, we have several new specialty guides that will become available both at our office and on our website, as well as a new supplement to our main job search guide, Serving the Public.

To offer a taste of these new offerings, here is a sample narrative from the new LGBT Rights Law Career Guide, which is now available (.pdf):

Katherine Triantafillou
Attorney at Law
Cambridge, Massachusetts

I did not grow up with a burning desire to practice law. I wanted to be President of the United States and make the world a better place. Going to law school seemed like a practical way to begin such a journey. Although I had been out sexually since high school, I continued to date and maintained the outward manifestations of heterosexuality; it wasn’t until I experienced the full force of the women’s movement and the gay movement here in Boston while I was attending law school that I came out as a lesbian politically. The realization that I could no longer hide who I was and be fully integrated as a human being carried with it the equally potent realization that, at the time, mainstream politics would be impossible. This was in 1975, well before Barney Frank and Gerry Studds acknowledged their homosexuality in a storm of scandal.

Rather than accept the judicial clerkship I was offered out in Ohio, I decided to stay in Boston and start my own law practice on the day I was sworn in to the Bar. I was the first openly gay person to practice law privately in Massachusetts and thus threw myself into the challenge of addressing homophobia in the legal and political world. Although I created what is known as a general practice – accepting a variety of cases from wills to divorces to criminal defense – my focus was on gay and lesbian issues and feminist issues. I had no money, huge law school debts, and no family connections (everyone I knew was back in my home state in Michigan), and used my teeny apartment on Beacon Hill as an office. Because there were no openly gay lawyers, I got a lot of clients just by the mere fact that people were looking for a lawyer with whom they could feel comfortable. I was also fortunate in that I had made the acquaintance of one of the few feminist attorneys in town, now a federal judge, who referred me cases she did not want.

One of my first cases was as a volunteer for the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts where I helped defend two women thrown out of the Army for their sexual orientation. (Then, the Army conducted aggressive campaigns to rid their ranks of suspected lesbians in a surreal and ugly reprise of The Crucible). I also volunteered at a shelter for battered women – one of the first in the country – and ended up providing 24-hour a day legal advice to women fleeing abusive husbands. As a result of both those affiliations, I became an “expert” and participated in many seminars, panels, television and radio shows talking about homophobia and wife abuse. The resulting personal publicity and networking helped grow my practice, although that was not my intention.

When former Mayor Kevin White refused to issue a permit for the annual gay pride parade in the early 80’s, I was one of the attorneys who sued him; when a prize winning lesbian journalist was fired from her job at the Christian Science Monitor, I represented her; when a married doctor with children was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior at a rest stop, I represented him; when gay couples worried how they would protect each other in case of death or illnes, I drafted their wills and powers of attorney; when a gay man with AIDS was brutally beaten by a homophobic teenager, then charged with A&B with a dangerous weapon, I represented him. When politicians ran for office or were in office, I worked with groups pressuring them to publicly support gay issues, or issue executive orders, or adopt anti-discrimination legislation. When demonstrators chained themselves to seats in the State House protesting the failure of the legislature to pass our anti-discrimination law, I represented them. When a group of lesbians staged a “sleep in” at the entrance to the Governor’s office protesting the removal of foster kids from the home of two gay men, I represented them. I also produced and co-hosted “Closet Space,” one of the first and oldest radio shows with gay content in the U.S.

I was the co-founder and first co-chair of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. I was one of the original people who created the Lavender Law Conference, geared toward the practical training of LGBT lawyers. I wrote and self-published Do Your Own No-Fault Divorce, and training manuals for shelter advocates helping battered women. I co-authored the Abuse Prevention Act, a national model for obtaining restraining orders and was the principal lobbyist in the state house for the coalition of groups that supported it. In 1993, I won a landmark case, Adoption of Tammy, which established the right of gay people to jointly adopt in Massachusetts. I was an adjunct professor at Northeastern Law School where I taught their first Sexual Orientation and the Law course and at Suffolk Law School where I taught family law and made sure to cover lesbian and gay legal issues in my classes.

In 1994 I was elected to the City Council of Cambridge (the first openly lesbian elected official in Cambridge) and served for six years. Just prior to my election I helped the Mayor draft a Domestic Partnership Ordinance. When I was in office I advocated for the implementation of domestic partnership health benefits. I helped amend our Human Rights Ordinance to include transgender rights.

The 20 years between 1975 and 1995 were an exciting and heady time, with endless opportunities for creative lawyering and I was privileged to have been a part of it. There was so much to do and so few people doing it, it is hard for new lawyers to imagine a period of our history when one could read every law review article written on LGBT issues in an hour. Or even the sad fact that a liberal Democratic Governor could promulgate a regulation that foster children not be placed with homosexual parents.

Although the times have indeed changed and many of the major legal battles have been won here in Massachusetts – and to practice law in Massachusetts is akin to being in gay nirvana – I truly believe there are abundant opportunities for new lawyers to litigate cutting edge cases or to be of service to the LGBT community. One of the drawbacks of our success has been the professionalization of the movement and thus most civil rights litigation is now handled through large organizations, both nationally and on the state level. But this does not mean the only way to practice gay law is to be a staff attorney for one of those organizations. Live in a smaller city and establish a general practice; cases will walk in the door that cry out for your advocacy and empathy.

Move back to your hometown or state, wherever that may be, and make changes and be “the gay lawyer” there. Work in a large downtown law firm, but be “out” and encourage the firm to handle the legal work of some of our organizations pro bono or make loads of money, giving generously to the organizations that are fighting on our behalf. Volunteer for a LGBT non-profit or be on the Board and draft by-laws that make sense and help the organization meet its mission. Consider running for office, including those “lower” levels, such as school committee where many of the important decisions affecting LGBT youth arise.

In 1996 I closed my law practice, which by then had grown to five attorneys, a paralegal, a once a week bookkeeper, two administrative staffers and $50,000/month overhead, to concentrate on doing something different with my career. It was a far cry from the $125/month studio apartment on Beacon Hill, but I felt that it was time to move on to other social issues and I was burned out. We had scores of gay attorneys, more than a handful of gay judges, dozens of LGBT organizations and newspapers articles stopped using “lesbian” or “gay” before the word “lawyer” or “city councilor” when I was quoted in an article. We had achieved many of our goals, at least in Massachusetts, and I reasoned that there were plenty of newer folks who could take on the remaining legal challenges while I concentrated on my political career.

However, in 1999 I lost my reelection to the City Council. Fortuitously, I also graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, having become reacquainted with my love for international relations and foreign policy. Thereafter, I started consulting on civil society projects overseas, including trying a criminal case in Kosovo, building political parties in Bosnia and evaluating local government projects in Azerbaijan. I didn’t do gay rights when working in developing countries, but became more aware of how difficult it is just be gay in many foreign countries. If foreign affairs are your passion, then look into the international organizations that deal with advancing gay rights issues or start pressuring the UN to confront homophobia.

Because of my mother’s declining health in 2003, I settled back into the United States for what I thought was a temporary basis, starting up my law practice again until I could get back overseas. I joined the Board of MassEquality mostly because I was deeply concerned about the backlash from the marriage decision and what a disaster it would be for our community to have the issue up for a referendum vote, even in Massachusetts. In addition, I was fearful that everything I had worked for would go down the tubes in a wave of fundamentalist fury. The choice surprised me because I thought those years of “gay activism” were behind me, but it also reminded me that one never knows where this journey of life will take you.

The LGBT legal landscape has changed considerably since I graduated from law school, but as I reflect upon it now I think that transgender issues present the same challenge that gay issues did, as will the myriad of issues that will be litigated as a result of the conflict between DOMA type legislation and gay marriage rights. More battles will also be fought over children and young adults, especially in the schools. There are countless ways in which LGBT lawyers can make a difference, some of which you won’t know until you commit yourself to the “cause” and pay attention to the large and small ways in which individuals with your training and intelligence can make a difference.

Thus my overriding advice to new law school graduates is that you should always be open to new experiences, don’t be afraid of changing your mind, and as the ancient Greeks said, “know thyself.” If your goal is to help others, truly help others, then there will always be opportunities for you to change the world and make it a better place.

Katherine Triantafillou practices law in Cambridge, Massachusetts and also consults on civil society projects worldwide. She is currently working on publishing her first novel in addition to being Vice-President of MassEquality and a member of the Family Law Section of the Mass. Bar Association.