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One evening last July, Bryan Schwartz was a guy running a new 40-attorney business law firm in Chicago, trying to forget about work for a bit. The HBO movie he tuned to, “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” dramatized a real estate dispute, but he didn’t switch the channel. On the program, a closeted lesbian died, and her nephew evicted her partner from the house — for which the partner had paid half the mortgage. A lunch conversation later, Schwartz says, his firm, Levenfeld Pearlstein, was on its way to establishing a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) law practice group, which offers to assist professionals with their tax, legal, estate, and family issues. It is apparently the first such designated practice in the country in a full-service firm larger than the corner candy store. Schwartz’s firm has already conducted seminars at events for the GLBT community, designed and packaged a basic set of documents, registered the domain, and prepared an ad campaign. In January, Levenfeld Pearlstein won a 15-firm beauty contest to become outside general counsel to the Chicago Area Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. So far, the bottom-line impact of all this has been slight: a few estate planning clients. But the firm has just begun. Schwartz has felt some immediate personal reverberations from the business move. “A lot of people I’ve known for years, friends and clients, they have never told me till now they’re gay,” says Schwartz, who is heterosexual. The other person at the initial lunch, Schwartz’s openly gay law partner Mark Bereyso, directs the practice. He says that his lesbian and gay acquaintances have voiced appreciation: “My friends have said, ‘That is just great. By the way, you seem to be much happier in your work.’ “ Pioneer or not, Bereyso’s success is not assured, even among the wealthiest gays and lesbians. “I think it really is going to depend how much other work Levenfeld Pearlstein does,” says Donald Gottesman of Storm & Gottesman, a director of the Chicago gay chamber of commerce. “Are they going to have people at gay functions, people on the boards of local gay organizations?” They are not likely to garner immediate support from solos and small firms that historically have done this work. William Borah, a bisexual employment lawyer in solo practice, sees the big firms as corporate interlopers, albeit liberal: “They will print an ad in all the colors of the rainbow if it will get them money.” He notes that Levenfeld Pearlstein waited until Cook County accumulated three openly gay judges. Perhaps anticipating the skepticism, the firm has not just come out. It’s come on strong. “The law does not recognize your relationship, but there’s a law firm that does,” says a firm advertisement above a picture of two T-shirted men, arms around each other. Another ad shows two women nuzzling: “All couples need to talk about the future. Gay and lesbian couples need to talk about the future with a lawyer.” The firm plans to run the ads in local gay publications like Windy City Times and Clout, to put them on postcards, and perhaps to use them in mailings. Unlike their heterosexual neighbors, Chicago gays and lesbians are not protected by some 1,000 Illinois and federal laws, the firm reminds would-be clients in its marketing material. Bereyso and colleagues had previously worked, quietly, on “gay divorces,” adversarial probate matters, adoptions, and asset protection. Bereyso says the firm has documents addressing, among others, real estate and sperm donor concerns. The product of a merger two years ago of two smaller business firms, Levenfeld Pearlstein in general aims to help entrepreneurs and owners of middle-market companies. The firm grosses about $12 million annually, 85 percent of it from business entities, says Schwartz, the firm’s co-managing partner. He sees little risk in going the gay route. One way the firm can break into its new niche is by piggybacking on the many companies that already have catered to the gay market. “There’s the dirty little secret. We found out that if we go into this area, we can partner up with Merrill Lynch because they have a program.” Gottesman, a partner in a three-lawyer business firm, agrees that Levenfeld has a good chance with gays and lesbians in beefy Chicago, where they have felt alienated in skyscraper firms. One key mishap: attorneys trying to make sense of gay living situations. Gottesman mimics: ” ‘Partner? Okay, that’s sort of like a business partner?’ … Um, no.” Presumably Levenfeld can make the adjustment, even though Schwartz’s partners, at first, were … lawyers. Their concern: What will our clients think? The clients told Schwartz they liked the idea. In the end, he says, it’s become more than an opportunistic business move: “I thought I was enlightened then. But this has enlightened me.” Schwartz, meanwhile, hopes to woo top gay and lesbian talent to the firm. “To be who you are in a law firm now is what it’s all about,” he says. Levenfeld Pearlstein, even with its two staff marketers and rich clients, could lose this niche if a big firm were to so much as tilt slightly in this direction. “If a big firm comes in, swoops in, and takes over, at least we would have enlightened them,” says Schwartz. “If that’s the worst thing that happens to us, I could live with that.” He doesn’t expect much competition for a while, though. The bigger firms aren’t just slow-footed: “It’s because of what I think are abnormalities in their philosophies.” Huh? “They’re homophobic,” says Schwartz, sharing his enlightenment.

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