Law firms cautioned about creating LGBT practice groups

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It may appear to be a good time to begin marketing legal services to same-sex couples in Pennsylvania given the overturning of the state’s ban on gay marriage, but lawyers who have long represented the community warn firms not to just stick “LGBT” in front of their practice and hope for work.

Representing the LGBT community, often in some of the most personal areas a lawyer can handle, such as family law, requires not only legal expertise but a sensitivity to the LGBT community’s needs and concerns, attorneys said.

“With marriage equality coming to Pennsylvania, some of the legal issues have become less complex, quite frankly, because now married couples can divorce the same way, where before we were doing very complex partition cases,” said Tiffany Palmer of Jerner & Palmer, a firm that has long represented the LGBT community.

But there are a number of unique legal issues emerging as well, she said, such as choice-of-law issues over how Pennsylvania courts will address civil unions from other states, what date would be used for equitable distribution in a divorce for a longtime same-sex couple who had been together for years but was only able to marry recently, and complex parentage issues regarding third-party adoption.

Aside from cultural sensitivity is the fierce loyalty the LGBT community has when exercising its purchasing power, said Angela Giampolo of Giampolo Law Group and president of Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia.

“I want a gay martini served to me by a gay guy at a gay bar surrounded by gay people,” Ms. Giampolo said of her purchasing preferences. “Italians go to Italians, Jews go to Jews and pink dollars go to pink people.”

Of course, she said, she would never refer a client to anyone who wasn’t first and foremost competent.

Ms. Giampolo, who has seen a huge rise in her practice in the wake of marriage equality in Pennsylvania, isn’t against seeing those pink dollars go to other law firms — as long as they are doing it right.

And one firm that appears to be doing it right is Allentown-based Gross McGinley. The firm has hired Ms. Giampolo, among a number of other diversity training efforts, to help it be culturally and legally prepared to start its new LGBT practice group.

Gross McGinley announced the formation of the eight-lawyer group composed of attorneys with experience in real estate, domestic relations, adoption, employment and estate planning. The group’s formation, several months in the making, was spawned by a request from Lehigh Valley LGBT advocate Adrian Shanker, who had worked with firm founder Malcolm Gross on the Allentown Human Relations Commission.

Gross McGinley attorney Deb Faulkinberry, who is heading up the firm’s LGBT initiative, said the concern was that there wasn’t a more economical alternative for the legal needs of the Lehigh Valley LGBT community, whose members often had to face the time and expense of traveling to Philadelphia law firms.

Ms. Faulkinberry said the firm contemplated for several months whether to create the group. She said they realized they would have to “educate, counsel and consult” before being able to credibly advertise its services to the LGBT community.

Since then, Gross McGinley brought in someone from the Pennsylvania Diversity Network to do a firmwide training for everyone from attorneys to the receptionist.

“Communication is equally as important as preserving their rights,” Ms. Faulkinberry said.

Ms. Giampolo will be coming to the firm for a day of training, and two of Gross McGinley’s lawyers will be going to the annual Lavender Law conference in New York, where there are a number of seminars on legal issues facing the LGBT community. And in August, the firm will participate in Allentown’s Pride in the Park event, where the firm will give 10-minute seminars throughout the day, Ms. Faulkinberry said.

“They know enough to know what they don’t know,” Ms. Giampolo said of Gross McGinley. “So they are building it correctly in my opinion.”

Ms. Palmer said there are a few national groups that require admission for those providing specialized representation to the LGBT community. The National LGBT Bar Association, in conjunction with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, created the LGBT Family Law Institute in the wake of a perceived problem with general family law practitioners not having the experience to handle certain LGBT-related cases, she said. She said the organization is extremely helpful in addressing cross-jurisdictional conflicts.

Ms. Palmer said she knows she can be confident in finding attorneys in other jurisdictions who are well versed on the issues if they already have been vetted for membership in the institute. Institute members meet once a year at the Lavender Law conference.

“You have to put your education where your mouth is,” Ms. Faulkinberry said. “We want to be sure that what we do is helpful.”

Ms. Faulkinberry said each member of the new practice group did some research on his or her particular area of law to determine where the LGBT community may face challenges.

Ms. Giampolo said there has been a “huge spike in legal work” in the immediate aftermath of marriage equality in Pennsylvania. Most of that, and what she expects to see for the coming year, is redoing legal documents to recognize a new marriage. One couple, for example, who had been together for 43 years but just got married a month ago, couldn’t wait to see their wills say “husband and husband,” she said.

Ms. Giampolo said the last year-and-a-half has shown a lot of firms trying to get a piece of that legal work, “mainly by sticking LGBT in front of it.”

“Sensitivity training is key to being able to work with the specific client population,” Ms. Palmer said, adding later, “A lot will just be a comfort level and how general practitioners who are not LGBT are comfortable handling the cases.”


Gina Passarella can be contacted at 1-215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com.

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