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July 01, 2003

Human Rights Heroes: Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP

by Patrick McGlone

With law firms facing ever-increasing pressures to boost revenues, and private practitioners facing constant demands to generate new business, the willingness of private-firm lawyers to devote substantial blocks of time to pro bono work, community affairs, and bar activities is severely tested. At the Vermont firm of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP (LS&W), however, commitment to working for the public interest and the advancement of civil rights is as much a bedrock principle today as it was when the firm was founded roughly forty years ago. The firm's twenty-three lawyers, split between offices in Middlebury and Burlington, dedicate an impressive amount of time to defending civil rights, promoting community interests, and contributing to professionalism within the bar. LS&W attorneys have been particularly active in expanding the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The firm's attorneys, especially Susan Murray and Beth Robinson, have successfully litigated cases addressing second-parent adoption, the rights of nonbiological parents to child custody, and the custody rights of transgender parents. They are the "go to" people in Vermont for relationship documents, employment matters, and countless other issues.

The firm's general rule is that lawyers should spend about one-quarter of their time giving back to society in pro bono work, community or bar association activities, or similar undertakings. This level of commitment to nonpaying work is nearly unheard of in today's practice of law. LS&W attorneys lead or volunteer for school boards, advocacy organizations, the ABA and other bar associations, community groups, local government entities, youth and athletic groups, and other organizations working for the public interest. In addition, the firm's lawyers have played a role in many of Vermont's most important civil rights cases, including Brigham v. Vermont, in which the state's system for funding public schools was held to violate children's rights to equal educational opportunities; and Chittenden Town School District v. Vermont Department of Education, a successful challenge, based on church-state separation principles, to state funding of tuition at sectarian schools. In 2000 the National Law Journal named LS&W one of its Pro Bono Firms of the Year. Recently, five LS&W attorneys (Peter F. Langrock, Liam L. Murphy, Susan M. Murray, Beth Robinson, and Mark L. Sperry) were selected for inclusion in the 2003-2004 edition of Best Lawyers in America. This column pays special tribute to the firm as a whole and to three of these outstanding lawyers in particular.

Peter F. Langrock

Peter F. Langrock, one of the firm's founders and an unceasing champion of pro bono work, inspires much of LS&W's admirable philosophy. Throughout his long career, Langrock has traveled many roads to show his dedication to justice for Vermont's citizens. Shortly after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, he was elected state's attorney for Addison County, Vermont. Since then, through his litigation practice, pro bono cases, community activities, and work within the bar, he has fought numerous civil rights and equal justice battles. As former Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR) Section Chair Robert F. Drinan once wrote, Langrock has been "progressive and strong on all of the tough issues of civil liberties."

Langrock has demonstrated a particular zeal for police brutality cases, criminal defense work, environmental law issues, and constitutional law cases. His superior advocacy skills have earned him election to the American Law Institute. He currently is litigating Landell v. Sorrell, a challenge to Vermont's campaign finance laws as a violation of free speech rights.

Langrock also has been a staunch supporter of the ABA. He is a former chair of the IRR Section and a former member of the Board of Governors and the Pro Bono Committee. He currently serves as Vermont State Delegate to the ABA and is a member of the Commission on Women in the Profession. Long active with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Langrock currently is its vice president.

Langrock once wrote, "From the first grade on, I always wanted to be a lawyer, and I have never thought seriously of any other profession." It is the good fortune of the citizens of Vermont and the ABA that he has not.

Susan M. Murray and Beth Robinson

There can be no greater example of the ability of private-firm lawyers to advance human rights through pro bono work than the efforts of LS&W partners Susan M. Murray and Beth Robinson on behalf of gay and lesbian Vermonters seeking equal access to marriage. Their dedication and skill resulted in Vermont's civil union law, which has markedly improved equality for gay men and lesbians.

Their work began long before the limelight ultimately associated with the Baker v. State of Vermont case. In 1995 Murray and Robinson founded the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, which served a crucial role in developing popular support for equal access to the legal benefits and responsibilities of marriage for gay men and lesbians. This grassroots public education effort helped to inform Vermonters about the concerns of same-sex couples who could not marry under state law. Two years later, Robinson and Murray, with co-counsel Mary L. Bonauto of the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), filed suit on behalf of three couples denied marriage licenses, contending that the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution precluded the state from denying same-sex couples the right to marry. In November 1998 Robinson adroitly argued the couples' cause in the Vermont Supreme Court, while the Freedom to Marry Task Force continued its statewide education efforts.

In a landmark ruling in December 1999, the court held that the state must give gay and lesbian couples the same benefits and protections that flow from Vermont law to opposite-sex couples who marry. The court directed the state legislature to craft laws that would carry out the constitutional mandate. During spring 2000, as Vermont legislators wrestled with bills that would address the court's decision, Murray, Robinson, and supporters proved to be key lobbyists. Moreover, the public support the Freedom to Marry Task Force built proved essential in persuading lawmakers that Vermont voters favored equal benefits. In April 2000 a bill creating civil unions for same-sex couples that conferred the benefits and responsibilities of a marital relationship passed the Vermont legislature and was signed by Governor Howard Dean.

Robinson's and Murray's extraordinary work was not over. The decision of the Vermont Supreme Court and the passage of the civil union law ignited a firestorm of debate both in the state and throughout the country. In the fall of 2000 Vermont legislative elections became a focal point of activism by conservatives bent on defeating candidates who had voted for the law. Murray and Robinson founded Vermonters for Civil Unions, a political action committee supporting candidates who favor civil unions, and the Vermonters for Civil Unions Legislative Defense Fund, an organization to lobby against repeal efforts. In the end, the expert strategic work of Robinson, Murray, and their allies and supporters led to a narrow victory for candidates favoring civil unions and preservation of the momentous advances that their years of hard work had produced.

During the long battle, Robinson (whose practice is primarily in personal injury, workers' compensation, and family law) and Murray (who concentrates on family law, estate planning, and appellate work) were unswerving in their devotion to the cause of equality even though their service was entirely pro bono. At the peaks of their activity, their nonpaying work consumed all of their time, but LS&W backed them with unstinting support. LS&W's devotion to a matter of the highest public interest amply demonstrates its long-standing commitment to civil rights and pro bono service.

Among the firm's admirers is Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who recently said:

Peter and those in his office have true Vermonters' values of protecting people's privacy and individual dignity. Beth Robinson and Susan Murray carried out those values by making it part of our law. They had to face a lot of prejudice doing it, but ultimately they made sure that the good sense of Vermonters won out.

The professionalism and passion for public service that are exemplified by the firm, and in particular by Peter F. Langrock, Beth Robinson, and Susan M. Murray, remind us that the pressures of economic imperatives need not require that lawyers forgo vital and challenging pro bono work.

Patrick McGlone

Patrick McGlone practices law in Washington, D.C. He is the co-chair of the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee of the ABA's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.