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January 06, 2019 Winter 2019

An Interview with Stonewall Awardee Mary Eaton

Mary Eaton is a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher and Chair of the firm’s Business and Corporate Litigation Practice Group. That’s impressive enough, but she also maintains an enormous pro bono case load. The Legal Aid Society has recognized Eaton for her pro bono service with its Pro Bono Publico Award six times.

She was selected by the New York Law Journal as a 2015 honoree for its “Lawyers Who Lead by Example” award in the pro bono category, received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the Federal Bar Council, was named Outstanding Pro Bono Volunteer by the New York State Bar Association and was given the Attorneys and Advocates Award by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

Now, Ms. Eaton is one of SOGI’s 2018 Stonewall Award  recipients, recognized for her extensive pro bono work on behalf of LGBTQ2 clients.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Eaton and talk about her commitment to pro bono and her other passions:

Have you done pro bono work since you first became a lawyer?

Pro bono has always been an important part of my identify as a lawyer, and I have been doing it since I was in law school! My first work was on a correctional law project dealing with prisoners’ rights.

Tell us about some of the pro bono work you have done for the LGBTQ2 community.  

In the case of Cruz v. Zucker, my firm partnered with The Legal Aid Society and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project to sue the NYS Department of Health on behalf of a class of transgender Medicaid recipients, seeking to overturn a NYS regulation that barred Medicaid coverage for transgender- related healthcare. The decision in Cruz led to a repeal of the ban and an amended regulation, which required Medicaid coverage for all medically necessary health care for individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria. I put in almost 900 hours of pro bono on the case and supervised 26 Willkie associates, together with my partner, Wes Powell. In 2017, I was part of a team of Willkie lawyers who filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in the case of Gloucester County School Board vs. GG, which challenged a Virginia public school district’s policy prohibiting transgender students from using the restroom conforming to their gender identity. 

We also partnered with Lambda Legal and successfully sued Sizzler’s Restaurant for discrimination against an LGBTQ2 customer in the first test case of the bias crime law (which holds individuals accountable for anti-LGBTQ2 violence). In that case, I represented a lesbian in an action al- leging violations of city and state civil and human rights laws after she was violently attacked and discriminated against in a Sizzler. I was also part of the Willkie team that drafted an amicus brief on behalf of 92 plaintiffs in the Obergefell case.

What was your most meaningful pro bono experience and why?

All of my pro bono experiences are meaningful to me. I’ve been really lucky to work on some great cases for some extraordinary people. We owe everything to our clients. These are people who have already been denied basic civil rights or suffered extreme abuse and yet are brave enough to take a stand, even if doing so puts them at even greater risk. They are the real trailblazers; I’m just there to help.

You put in a phenomenal number of hours of pro bono time.  How do you manage that with your day job?  

Many people in this country work two jobs just to put a roof over their heads and food on the table.  My mom had two jobs. Anytime I feel tired, I just remind myself of that. Plus, it’s a privilege to practice law. Frankly, I think that anyone with the time and resources should be doing something to give back to the community, especially with everything that’s going on today. Now is an important time for us to pull together as a community and fight back.

What other activities are you involved with in the LGBTQ2 space?

I serve  on the board  of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the nation’s oldest and largest provider of direct services to at-risk LGBTQ2 youth and home of the Harvey Milk High School, a New York City public high school for at-risk students, many of whom are LGBTQ2. HMI is a fabulous organization! They are doing work that nobody else does.

What are your other passions? 

I am a proud feminist, so women’s rights are very important to me. I am also very concerned about the erosion of voting rights and what’s going on in this country right now with respect to immigration. I also strongly believe in mentoring the next generation, which is why I involve associates in my pro bono work. It’s an incredible learning experience for them.

What else should everybody know about Mary Eaton?

I love David Bowie.  And I love Freddy Mercury.  The jury is still out on who I love more.

And that is how a litigator ends an interview.

Meg Milroy

SOGI Commissioner

Thanks to Meg Milroy for conducting this interview for The Equalizer.

Milroy is a Managing Associate General Counsel at Verizon, where she also serves on the Executive Advisory Board for the company’s LGBTQ Employee Resource Group. Milroy is serving her 3rd year as a SOGI Commissioner. Please note, The Equalizer’s edi ors may have changed the varying sexual orientation and gender identity acronyms to “LGBTQ2” for consistency.

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