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May 10, 2013 Articles

Ruth Harlow: One of Our Heroes

By Emily Babcock

"Lives of great [LGBT litigators] all remind us we can make our lives sublime; and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time."
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I replaced "men" with "LGBT litigators" to illustrate a point—the need to recognize heroes among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) litigators whose lives a younger generation of LGBT litigators, including myself, can emulate. One of the missions of the LGBT Litigator committee is to act as a forum for discussion of the unique issues that face LGBT litigators. One of those issues is the lack of historical role models in the field of litigation because, just 10 years ago, it was still illegal in some states to be LGBT. As a result, LGBT lawyers remained closeted. It is possible that Supreme Court justices, presidents, or prominent legal scholars may have been LGBT, but we may never know. The purpose of this article, and future articles like this, is to profile LGBT litigators worthy of being recognized as heroes, who were not closeted and whose careers, both in public interest and private practice, bear the hallmarks of excellence in litigation.

This article is about Ruth Harlow. Among her many achievements, Ruth Harlow was lead counsel in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), the Supreme Court decision that struck down states' anti-sodomy laws. She also was involved in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), a Supreme Court decision that struck down an anti-gay referendum in Colorado that was held to be unrelated to a legitimate government interest. As discussed more fully below, Harlow practiced for 16 years as a civil rights litigator, 13 of which were spent working for gay and lesbian civil rights with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Lambda Legal. Ruth Harlow agreed to speak with me so I could write an accurate profile of her career. She was extremely insightful, forthright, and, despite her accomplishments, quite modest.

This is not a piece about Harlow's childhood or personal life. What I did learn about her early life were influences that led her to become a lawyer—her role models. While she was in boarding school, she met one of the first influential lawyers in her life, John Doar, whom she described as a "very successful but low-key civil rights lawyer." Doar was her friend's father. She would later work at Doar's law firm the summer after her first year of college.

In college, she met another influential lawyer, Lois Sheinfeld, who taught an undergraduate legal-studies course at Stanford University, where Harlow attended and majored in political science. Sheinfeld was a housing-discrimination lawyer. Her class was about briefing and arguing before the Supreme Court, and Sheinfeld had her students conduct legal research and put together a case. This course solidified Harlow's desire to go to law school.

Harlow graduated from Stanford in 1983 and went straight to Yale Law School. She went to Yale because of its strong history in public service and because of its reputation as an excellent school. Although Harlow remains interested in civil rights generally, it was during law school that she came out as a lesbian and during law school that she first engaged in what she called "advocacy related to gay civil rights within the context of the law school." For example, she was part of a group that organized and held the first legal conference on AIDS and the law.

After law school, Harlow clerked for one year with Judge Walter Stapleton of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Upon concluding her clerkship, Harlow went to work for another influential lawyer in her life, Judith Vladeck, at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, where she practiced primarily employment-discrimination law. After three years, she joined the ACLU in 1990. This was the beginning of her long career working toward LGBT rights.

In 1996, Harlow made the move from the ALCU to Lambda Legal. The two groups had already been working closely together, and she described the move as a personal opportunity to do more: to manage a group of lawyers and to eventually become legal director. Harlow explained: "One of the reasons the lesbian and gay rights movement has been so successful has been that the groups and the small band of lawyers working to advance rights on a full time basis worked very closely together."

Over the course of her 13-year career working for lesbian-gay rights, Harlow worked on numerous cases, two of which were Lawrence and Romer.She said that, in addition to those landmark cases, she worked on everything from family law, to employment law, to government restriction on AIDS education. She explained that there were "many, many injustices at the point at which I started doing gay rights work and the battle seemed like it would be a very uphill one." But she explained that the work was gratifying, that success started to snowball, and that for her it culminated with the 2003 Lawrence decision.

After seven years with Lambda Legal, she left in 2003 (around the same time as Lawrence was decided). She explained that she had been doing civil rights work for 16 years, gay-lesbian rights work for 13 years, and that she had a good run doing it. But at the end of that period, she was spending more time managing within a nonprofit than litigating. She thought, after Lawrence, it would be a good time to find new challenges. She eventually decided, after considering other career shifts, that she really liked the "nuts and bolts of litigation and wanted to practice [her] skills and expand [her] capabilities in a challenging environment."

Harlow then moved from nonprofit impact litigation to global commercial litigation. She first went to White & Case LLP, a large global law firm with offices all over the world. She practiced there for two years. She then moved to Linklaters, also a global law firm, where she practiced securities litigation for seven years. Most recently, she moved to Pepper Hamilton, a large United States firm, where she is a partner. During her private-practice civil litigation career, spanning 10 years and counting, she has worked on everything from Enron securities litigation, with 30 to 40 lawyers on cases, to cases she handled alone. Although Harlow leads a successful career in private practice, she is still committed to the LGBT-rights movement; she continues to work on pro bono matters for Lambda Legal and for other clients.

I asked Harlow two questions to close out this article. First, I asked her what she likes about being a litigator. She said she liked the "challenge of putting together a factual story with a legal backdrop and trying to advance justice by showing how legal principles should be applied to new factual situations." Second, I asked her if she had any advice for LGBT litigators reading this article. She commented, rightly so, that it is hard to give global advice. But then she went on: "We're at a point now where I would encourage people not to limit their scope of ambition and career plans in any way; it is a much different landscape than it was 20 years ago." I could not agree with this advice more, and I would add that Ruth Harlow is one of the reasons that the landscape has changed in the past 20 years.

Keywords: litigation, LGBT, civil rights, ACLU, AIDS education, Lawrence v. Texas, Romer v. Evans, Supreme Court, role models

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