Many diversity experts agree—no other minority in the legal profession has experienced as much change in so little time as Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) attorneys. Over the last decade, these legal professionals have not only rapidly gained equality in the workplace, but also exponentially increased their visibility. Fittingly, the National Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Bar Association has joined ranks with other minority bars in honoring its up-and-coming leadership by introducing “Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40.” The newly established awards were presented to 40 deserving recipients on August 26 in Miami Beach, Florida, at the LGBT Bar’s annual conference and job fair, Lavender Law.
Created to recognize LGBT legal professionals under the age of 40 who have distinguished themselves in their field and have demonstrated a profound commitment to LGBT equality, the “Best Under 40” list includes partners and associates from both large and small law firms, attorneys working at nonprofit organizations and in-house counsel in large corporations, legal scholars, government attorneys and even a state senator.
“We weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get in our first year; but as it turned out, we were truly delighted with the outcome,” says D’Arcy Kemnitz, the LGBT Bar’s executive director. “Because LGBT attorneys are found in every corner of the profession, it makes perfect sense that the awardees are among the leaders shaping the future of the legal profession.” For Kemnitz, the vetting process was a labor of love. “We sent messages to everyone on our master blaster list, soliciting nominations of deserving candidates who fit the criterion: young leaders in the profession who’ve received professional accolades in their firm or NGO, but who also give back to the community on a regular basis.” The response to the call for nominations exceeded expectations.
“Some came from public affairs officers and a couple from senior partners, but they were the exception. Most nominations came from colleague peers and ABA buddies. Very few of the nominees were self-nominated…. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about incredible new people who are selflessly committed to social justice for LGBT folks,” Kemnitz adds. “Some of the nomination statements made me well up. Lawyers write persuasively, in some cases remarkably so. Needless to say, deciding on the final 40 winners was extremely difficult.”
Happily, reaction to the awards has been positive. “Many of the firms were delighted to learn that their partners and associates had been recognized,” Kemnitz says. “One winner’s law school threw her a party when they heard she had won.”
In addition to receiving her “Best Under 40” plaque with other awardees at Loews Miami Beach Hotel, Elizabeth Schwartz, a solo-practitioner in Miami, was individually feted at a reception held by her law alma mater, University of Miami. “It probably had more to do with proximity than the magnitude of my accomplishment,” Schwartz says with a chuckle. “Seriously though, it was very sweet, and I was touched to speak with LGBT attorneys that I knew from law school who were inspired by the way I’ve carved out a career that benefits our community. Most of them check their LGBT identity at the door when they go to work.”
Schwartz’s law practice—which she likes to call “gay family law”—includes assisting with the legal aspects of adoption, insemination, and surrogacy. She also focuses on traditional and nontraditional families, estate planning and probate, as well as divorce and creative conflict resolution. She works hard to make time for her passion projects such as serving as pro-bono counsel in several cases seeking to overturn Florida’s uniquely bigoted 1977 ban forbidding gays and lesbians from adopting children. Schwartz is also a member of the National Family Law Advisory Council of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Brandon Fitzgerald—MCCA’s own vice president, general counsel and secretary—was among the young attorneys selected to be honored. Prior to his current position, the University of Virginia Law School graduate was an associate in the Washington, D.C., offices of several national law firms and served as in-house counsel to multinational companies.
Outside of work, Fitzgerald is volunteer general counsel to One In Ten, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the LGBT community through the arts. The D.C.-based organization is best known for Reel Affirmations, the popular international gay and lesbian film festival. Fitzgerald also co-chairs the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association’s Diversity Forum and is a founder of its Corporate Scholars Program, which provides paid internships for diverse students attending law school.
Certainly colleagues and mentors have assisted the 40 winning lawyers in achieving success. Garry Bevel, an attorney for the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s Opening Doors for LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care project since April, considers his award a testimony to those who have surrounded him in his career: “I’ve been very lucky to work with people who’ve created programs that look into LGBT issues and work toward improving outcomes for LGBT youths in foster care.” Prior to joining the ABA, Bevel was an attorney with the Florida guardian ad litem program and assistant states attorney in Miami.
“In law school, you could never have told me this is what I’d be doing, but upon reflection, there is nothing else really for me to do, and it’s the people I’ve worked with who helped me to make that decision,” Bevel says. He also is on the Board of YES Institute, a Miami nonprofit committed to preventing suicide and ensuring the healthy development of all youth through powerful communication and education on gender and orientation.
“We’ve intentionally titled the winning cohort as the ‘Class of 2010.’ Kemnitz explains. “We want them to use each other as peers. Although they may be working in different corners of the profession, they can help one another to maintain a level of LGBT education wherever they are. We hope that this group will be there to exchange ideas and lend one another support through the years to come.”
The winners agree. Long after the celebratory evening in Miami Beach fades to a happy memory, this year’s class can still benefit from remaining in touch. “As a solo-practitioner, I spend a lot of time working on my own,” Schwartz says. “To know that an LGBT colleague is a phone call away is very reassuring. I definitely would like to remain in contact with the other winners.”
Fitzgerald adds, “Standing on the stage at the Loews, I introduced myself to some of the 40 other winners. It was a great opportunity to connect names with faces and to get a sense of what their careers are about. It’s important that we get acquainted. To the extent that change is going to come, it’s going to be through collaboration.”
Founded in 1992 and headquartered in Washington, D.C., the LGBT Bar is a national association of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals, law students, activists, and affiliate LGBT legal organizations. The LGBT Bar promotes justice in and through the legal profession for the LGBT community in all its diversity. Once perceived as a small, exclusive group, it is now more widely known with an expanding and diverse membership.
“Ultimately both the LGBT Bar and its ‘Best Under 40’ award are about bringing people together, designating them in a common way, and helping them to move on in their careers and improve their quality of life,” Kemnitz concludes. “The continued success of the awards will illustrate how comfortable the next generation is about coming out. This year’s winners are an amazing group of young lawyers—accomplished, modest, and truly lovely. We only hope that next year’s winners are equally stellar.” DB
From the November/December 2010 of Diversity & The Bar®