Spotlight on the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association: Promoting Justice In and Through the Legal Profession
By Josiah J. Puder
Josiah J. Puder is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and Vice-President and General Counsel of Melt, Inc., a public company headquartered in Southern California.
The recent decision by the California State Supreme Court that same sex couples must be allowed to enter into state-sanctioned marriages with the same rights and privileges as opposite sex couples highlights the unique position of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association’s (NLGLA) role in shaping some of the most controversial and important legal issues of our time. As amici in the California case, the NLGLA played a crucial role in arguing that gay and lesbian couples should receive the same treatment under the law as their “straight” counterparts. As one of the largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organizations in the United States, and the largest of its kind consisting exclusively of attorneys, the NLGLA has much work to do to support its membership of approximately 1,200 lawyers, judges, law students, and other legal professionals and lift the long-standing bias and stigmas against its community.
Founded in the late 1980s and formed as an affiliate of the ABA in 1992, the NLGL A’s mission is to promote “justice in and through the legal profession for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community.” With various voluntary member bar associations across the country, the NLGLA has dramatically increased its membership over the course of the last ten years and most recently has developed a strategic plan, which it hopes will address its rapid expansion and evolution into a dynamic and strong organization capable of providing information, support, and a voice to its diverse membership.
Although the NLGLA does not have a young lawyer division, its current national President, Laura J. Maechtlen, is herself a young lawyer. In addition, many of the NLGL A’s officers are also young attorneys who have moved up rapidly in the organization’s ranks. Maechtlen, an associate in the San Francisco office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, practices employment litigation and traditional labor law. As is the case with many bar leaders, Maechtlen’s leadership path was forged by her involvement in issues that meant a great deal to her. Maechtlen wants her term in office to be strongly guided toward improving the quality of life for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) legal community and implementing NLGL A’s strategic plan that was passed recently. This plan includes unifying all affiliates, introducing improved programming, tackling some of the major issues of our day such as same sex marriage rights, and building up a more expansive volunteer structure.
While the NLGLA has its annual meeting in conjunction with the ABA, the cornerstone of its programming is the Lavender Law Conference. Lavender Law offers all of the programs and events one would expect from a national bar association such as informative CLEs, prominent speakers, and administrative meetings. Its Career Fair, however, is unique in the realm of bar meetings. At this year’s Fair, roughly 150 law firms will descend on San Francisco to actively seek and recruit law students and lawyers for positions within their firms. With many firms implementing expansive and more inclusionary diversity practices, Lavender Law provides a meeting point where LGBT attorneys can feel comfortable about their identities from the very beginning.
“There is a big push to diversify in law firms,” Maechtlen says. She has experienced this initiative first hand at her firm, where she says, “they have been stellar in their support” for her work on behalf of the NLGLA legal community. While Maechtlen is responsible for the strategic direction of the organization, the tough job of implementing and managing the NLGL A’s expansion falls on the NLGL A’s Executive Director, D’Arcy Kemnitz, an attorney with more than twenty years experience working in the nonprofit arena and the social justice movement. Based out of Washington, D.C., Kemnitz’s most recent credit includes helping the NLGLA win recognition in the form of an award from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) for its work during Lavender Law and throughout the year. Calling the NLGLA an “organic, grass-roots organization,” Kemnitz still sees the “extraordinary bias in the profession” as documented in a recent Sexual Orientation Task Force Report by the Washington, D.C., Bar.
The NLGL A’s representative to the ABA YLD, Mario Sullivan, practices general litigation and landlord-tenant law in Chicago. Sullivan, who works at a law firm headed by a gay attorney, first became involved in the NLGLA by attending Lavender Law. Sullivan’s role within the ABA YLD is to represent the NLGLA at the ABA YLD Assembly and to sponsor, introduce, or support resolutions the organization finds favorable. Sullivan is also tasked with the responsibility of assisting in the implementation of the ABA YLD’s Diversity Plan. When asked why the NLGLA does not have a young lawyer division, Sullivan says he thinks the goals of the NLGLA in fighting discrimination resonate with and are similarly pertinent to both young and senior lawyers alike. Both Sullivan and Maechtlen, however, think a YLD component to the NLGLA is something to be considered in the coming years as the organization restructures and grows.