When Jessica Grossarth was a summer associate at Pullman & Comley back in 2001, she made an important decision that would shape the rest of her career.
Grossarth wanted to land that all important first law job, but she also wanted to make sure any law firm where she worked would be supportive of her lifestyle. With that in mind, Grossarth summoned her courage. She took a deep breath, and let her potential employers know that she was in a relationship with a woman.
"I had no idea how the firm would react to the fact that I was in a same-sex relationship, or how it would affect my ability to secure an offer," Grossarth said. "It was a very important moment, and the firm was incredibly supportive."
Now, 12 years later, Grossarth has been named chair of the newly created LGBT Section of the Connecticut Bar Association, which aims to promote and support awareness of legal issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She previously served as treasurer of the Commercial Law and Bankruptcy Section.
The LGBT section and another new section for Women in the Law, reflect an increased interest in promoting diversity by the CBA. That focus is a priority of the new CBA president, Kimberly Knox.
Former CBA President Keith Braddoc "Brad" Gallant said Knox and other bar leaders think that legal issues of concern to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including lawyers, will be best addressed in a CBA section. The section, said Gallant, "is an outgrowth of the strong stand in support of marriage equality that the CBA…has taken over the last several years."
A few months back, Grossarth approached Knox with a desire to create an LGBT section. Knox provided guidance. First, Grossarth had to show there was enough interest among CBA members to make the section "sustainable." Then, she had to create bylaws and a mission statement.
Historic events helped. As a backdrop, Grossarth said the litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court that ultimately overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied Social Security and other federal financial benefits to same-sex couples, provided a timely launching point. DOMA helped propel the idea into reality, Grossarth said. "And thankfully, we had a lot of support."
She said hundreds of lawyers — gay and straight — have expressed interest in the section, which hasn't had a formal meeting yet.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in Connecticut in 2008, and now the overturning of DOMA, has stirred activity among practice groups that cater to issues of importance to gay and lesbian couples, such as estate planning and divorce. As a result, many new practice groups are "popping up" around the state and nation, according to D'arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association.
Among Connecticut firms that market themselves as providing legal services for LGBT clients are Outten & Golden, which operates in Stamford and New York, and Day Pitney in West Hartford. Victoria T. Ferrara, in Fairfield, has taken "a special interest in legal issues that affect the Connecticut LGBT community" for more than 20 years, according to her website.
Dena Castricone, an associate with Murtha Cullina who is a board member of the LGBT Section, said even law firms that do not have designated LGBT practice groups are taking steps to draw business from gay and lesbian clients. "Our probate folks are handling a fair amount of same-sex estate plannings," she said. "Also, many employers we represent will likely have questions now about the impact of the [DOMA] decision on employee benefits."
The new practice section comes at a time when more attorneys are looking for resources to help them with gay and lesbian legal issues, especially in the realm of probate and child custody matters.
Teresa M. DiNardi, a partner with Ruane Attorneys at Law, said she supported the idea of creating a new bar organization for gay and lesbian attorneys for a long time. "I think Connecticut is a little behind the times on this," DiNardi said. "In Massachusetts, they have had an LGBT bar association for 40 years. When I got out of law school in Massachusetts and came to Connecticut, we had nothing here."
DiNardi, who is secretary of the new section, said she and some other Connecticut lawyers approached the CBA about creating a section back in 2007. Instead of approving the idea, the CBA created a subcommittee of LGBT lawyers and supporters within the already established Young Lawyers Section. "It was going well, but some lawyers were aging out, because they weren't young lawyers anymore," DiNardi said. "We still wanted a section that was our own."
DiNardi credited Grossarth with making the new section a reality. "Jessica took the ball and ran with it, which is great," DiNardi said. "She put a lot of work into this, and really made time for the effort, and we're fortunate that she did."
CBA President Knox said the new section will continue the CBA's progress towards embracing diversity in general. She said that mission began under Gallant's time as president two years ago when members of minority bar associations — known as affinity bar groups — were guaranteed seats in the House of Delegates. It continued last year, when then-president Barry Hawkins encouraged CBA leaders to support the legal fight to oppose DOMA.
"I'm hopeful that diversity will continue to increase among the general CBA membership," Knox said.
Another officer in the new section, Ken Bartschi, who is also Knox's law partner at Horton Shields & Knox, said the new LGBT law section, like the Women and the Law Section and affinity bar members, will help broaden the perspective of the CBA as to the range of legal issues confronting today's society and the myriad experiences of the CBA's membership.
"Put simply," he said, "it is easier to understand the experiences of minorities when they are visible. The LGBT Section will raise the visibility LGBT bar members and their allies," Bartschi said. "In addition, the LGBT Section strengthens the public image of the CBA as an inclusive organization committed to equal justice under the law."
Bartschi said the idea of having CBA sections devoted to the advancement of inclusiveness is important to the organization.
"Despite the significant legal advances for the LGBT community in Connecticut and nationally, much work remains," said Bartschi, who worked on the Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health case that legalized same-sex marriage in Connecticut. "Same-sex couples are still precluded from marrying in 37 states, although in a handful they can enter civil unions or registered domestic partnership. Likewise, the majority of states do not include sexual orientation or gender identity and expression in their anti-discrimination laws."
Another important function of the section, Bartschi said, is to provide support for young lawyers who are concerned about whether their sexual orientation will be detrimental to their careers. "It is one thing to change the law; it is another to change hearts and minds," Bartschi said. "To the extent that LGBT lawyers still feel that coming out would adversely affect their working life, the visibility of the LGBT section may help ameliorate such concerns and provide a network of support."
Meghan Freed, of Freed McKeen in Hartford, and the section's vice chair, said being gay or lesbian can be particularly scary for young attorneys. "When you're just starting out, you're afraid of everything. I think it can be especially scary that first year out of law school," she said. "You worry, will this have a negative impact on a firm's decision to make me a permanent offer?"
Like Grossarth, Freed said she was lucky to feel supported in her sexual orientation when she spent more than five years as in-house counsel to the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. Freed went into private practice in 2012.
She is particularly proud of the work she does in estate planning, matrimony and real estate within the LGBT community.
In creating the new section, she said, the focus has been "not just on hard law that impacts same-sex folks," like discrimination, but also to be able to connect with other lawyers who are either part of the community or allies to the community.
"There's never been one place within the bar where we could get to know each other," she said. "The hope is to have a vibrant group."•