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Funny thing has happened on the way to gaining full family medical benefits for young lesbian and gay lawyers in domestic partnerships: straight people living in unwedded bliss have begun winning equity with traditional heterosexual married couples. Beginning Feb. 1, for instance, health insurance benefits officially applied to families of unmarried heterosexual lawyers at New York-based Proskauer Rose — the same as wedded couples. In 1995, the firm instituted medical insurance for partners of homosexual lawyers who could demonstrate permanent, committed family relationships. Alan S. Jaffe, Proskauer’s chairman, said the expanded coverage was no big deal. “We’ve had [homosexual domestic partner] medical coverage for a long time now, and it just seemed illogical not to extend it to opposite-sex partners with the same kinds of conditions of permanent relationship,” he said. “This wasn’t a partnership vote or anything, it was just an administrative decision over a particular circumstance. “So we consulted with our insurance carrier, and they said fine.” Similarly, the management of New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom made medical benefits available to unmarried heterosexual couples in October of last year. And like Proskauer, the Skadden Arps move was an extension of medical benefits provided to gays and lesbians with domestic partners — a policy in place since January of 1995. Lawyers in domestic partnership must conform to certain standards, such as dual names on leases or mortgages, joint bank accounts, records of shared living expenses, life insurance and estate beneficiary status. Additionally, most law firms request copies of New York City domestic partnership registrations. Just as married couples are obliged to inform their employers in the event of divorce, unmarried personnel must report dissolution of domestic partnerships. Of the large firms surveyed, the decision to provide traditional benefits to untraditional couples was usually a product of employee request, cemented by the traditional desire of law firms to remain competitive in hiring and retention. At New York’s Shearman & Sterling, however, firm management took it upon itself to provide health benefits to its homosexual employees in 1996. “We didn’t wait until a petition was sent around,” said Anna Brown, 41, Shearman’s full-time diversity attorney. “The firm was proactive on this.” At present, Shearman does not provide health coverage in the case of heterosexual partnerships. “But we review our program periodically,” said Brown, a graduate of Howard University School of Law. Likewise, Philadelphia-based Morgan, Lewis & Bockius does not cover straight unmarried couples in domestic partnerships, although gays and lesbians have been covered since January of last year. Since January 1999, gays and lesbians at New York-based Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft have enjoyed domestic partnership health benefits, although the same arrangement for heterosexuals is yet to come. Brown and all others surveyed said the cost of adding domestic partners to law firm medical plans is, at most, minimal. Wendy Cartland, director of human resources for the Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis, went even further. In terms of cost, she said of the firm’s domestic partnership benefits program, “It made absolutely no difference whatsoever.” The inception of Kirkland’s program, in 1998, was made unique by the involvement of the office of the Illinois State Insurance Commission. Cartland said the idea of health benefits for the families of its lesbian and gay lawyers “bubbled up and made sense” back in ’96, when the firm was set to launch its program. But the state stepped in and said Kirkland’s plan would illegally discriminate against unmarried domestic partnerships. “So we wound up offering benefits in all cases all at once,” said Cartland. Cartland also acknowledged another initial fear, which experience has shown groundless: Would unmarried couples, gay or straight, be likely to split up at a greater rate than traditionally married couples? “It may have been a well-meant fear,” said Kevin M. Cathcart, a lawyer and executive director of Lambda Legal, the New York-based advocate for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and the transgendered. “But there aren’t a lot of people who would want to go to the human resources department every six months or so and put their lives on view like that. “Law firms have experience with people getting divorced and remarried and divorced again,” said Cathcart, 47. “It’s not really so different [with homosexual couples].” Cathcart’s agency, he said, has always offered health benefits to employees in domestic partnerships, gay or straight.

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