Of Lawyers and Lionesses
Our own Aby Parsons, former Co-Chair of GALA, recently sat down with prominent alumna attorney, Lawrie Demorest, for a conversation recalling just part of her LGBT Life Story. Here is what she learned from her encounter.
Sitting in the 49th floor office of Lawrie Demorest (81L), partner at Alston and Bird LLP and an award-winning attorney in the area of product liability litigation, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would have thought her legal career wouldn’t amount to much.
Yet, the late Dean of Emory Law School, Ray Patterson, did just that. Demorest recalls his admonition to her when she first arrived at Emory: “I remember having a meeting with him and him telling me, ‘People who start law school under your circumstances usually don’t succeed.’”
Demorest had indeed taken a route to law school that was less conventional at the time. Graduating from Franklin and Marshall in 1976 with a BA in English, Demorest soon moved down to Atlanta. “I actually followed a woman,” admits Demorest with a smile. Taking up work as a paralegal, which was a relatively new profession at the time, Demorest spent two years in the working world with a boutique insurance defense firm before making the decision to go to law school.
The main appeal of Emory Law School for Demorest was, quite simply, “convenience.” Emory’s program was the only accredited day program in the area, and she had already put down roots in Atlanta, so she threw in her lot with Emory, and made the bold but risky decision not to apply to any other schools.
The gamble paid off. “I LOVED law school,” says Demorest. “It was the first time I had ever cared about school and studying…I just loved the logic and rationality of everything.” Finding herself immersed in work that invigorated and challenged her, Demorest excelled academically. “At the end of the first semester, I had ended up in the top five per cent of the class.” Demorest pauses, a mischievous glint in her eye. “And I remember the extreme satisfaction of knowing that Dean Patterson knew I was in the top five per cent!”
After graduation, Demorest found herself defending doctors in medical malpractice suits for a law firm in Atlanta. The nature of the cases meant that her clients’ careers and reputations were on the line, making their investment in their cases deeply personal. “They’re trying to do their best for their patients, and things don’t always go well, so they get sued,” explains Demorest, “so it was emotional.” Her bold, meticulous, and sympathetic counsel won her many grateful clients, including one who expressed his admiration with a unique gift – and nickname! Demorest points to a photograph of a lioness on her bookshelf. “This was given to me by one of my doctor clients,” she says proudly. “He said that I was his lioness.”
Finding her path…Again
In 1989, Demorest moved to Boston and joined another law firm where she undertook a grueling trial schedule that led her to the verge of burnout. Feeling disenchanted with her career path and dissatisfaction with the firm she was working for, Demorest went to the partner who had hired her and submitted her resignation – only for him to decline it. “He said ‘No! Don’t leave. Let’s call it a leave of absence,’ and I said ‘Fine, call it whatever you want. I’m not coming back,’” she laughs.
Demorest pursued her interest in photography, and, inspired by her father’s passion for volunteer work, immersed herself in activism with AIDS Action Boston, using the break from the courtroom to discern the answers to two burning questions: “Am I gonna stay up here? And am I gonna continue practicing law, or do something else?”
After four years in Boston, which included months of reflection, the answer was clear: Return to Atlanta and rediscover her love of the law. In 1993, Demorest joined powerhouse law firm Alston and Bird LLP and made partner in 1996, becoming the first openly gay partner at a major law firm in the city…once she figured how to come out, that is.
“It was hard to make it happen naturally,” she laughs. “I wanted to BE out, but I wanted someone to have a conversation with me where it would be just, ‘Oh well, as a matter of fact…’because I didn’t just want to go down the halls announcing it.” It was on a car ride to Macon with a colleague that Demorest finally found a way to drop it into the conversation, and then there was no going back. Fortunately for Demorest, Alston and Bird was known for its inclusive work environment and its progressive LGBT policies – both factors that earned it the nickname ‘The Happy Firm’ among employees.
Demorest has since had such a prominent profile in LGBT advocacy that it’s hard to imagine a time when she wasn’t sure how to be out. In 2002, she began a three-year stint as Co-Chair for the Human Rights Campaign’s Board of Directors, which was immediately followed by two years of service as Co-Chair of the Board for the HRC Foundation. Demorest remains active in the HRC to this day with a role on the Emeritus Council, a group of former board members that act as ambassadors for the organization. Why the lifetime commitment to the HRC? “It was LGBT civil rights,” Demorest enthuses. “It gave people a voice, and it gave people a way to advocate and to lobby and to educate.”
FIGHTING FOR HER FAMILY
It was this passion for LGBT equality, combined with her prowess as a litigator, that led Demorest to tackle one of her toughest cases to date. Demorest’s partner, Lee, was an avid golfer, and had joined Druid Hills Country Club near Emory. Demorest, as Lee’s domestic partner but not her legal spouse, was granted only guest privileges. “I was really uncomfortable with joining,” recalls Demorest. “I felt like a hypocrite. But it meant a lot to her, and so it was the first big compromise I made for the sake of the relationship.”
Lee joined the club with the promise that they would work to change its discriminatory policies from the inside. When the couple decided to have children a few years later, they agreed it would be best to push for a change in policy so that the whole family could gain access to the benefits of the club together. “We went to the club and said ‘It’s time, and we want to be treated as full family members,’” explains Demorest. “And the Board said no…My kids can go there, our nanny or babysitter could go there with them [as guests], and I could go there with them, if I’m their guest – I could be the kids’ guest. That was the only way I could take them to the pool.”
Undeterred, Demorest and her partner looked to a recently passed City of Atlanta ordinance to force the club’s hand. The ordinance stated that any business that did business with the City was not allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and so Demorest and her partner seized on the opportunity to file a complaint with the City’s Human Relations Commission. At the resulting hearing, Demorest represented herself and her partner where she found herself firmly in her wheelhouse. “I had so much FUN!” exclaims Demorest. “I’m a litigator, so I got to cross-examine the club president!”
The case she made was convincing enough for the Commission to rule in her favor, but their feeling of vindication was short-lived. “There was no teeth in [the ordinance] that could make the club admit us,” says Demorest, and then Mayor Shirley Franklin was not exactly eager to pursue the matter further. She called Demorest and Lee and pressured them to drop the case, expressing her concern that the ordinance would get overturned by the state legislature if they continued to push the issue. But Demorest was persistent, telling Franklin, “If the ordinance has no teeth in it, then what good is it anyway? And yes, we do want to pursue this.”
Franklin acquiesced, and began fining the club every day to pressure it into changing its policy. The club fought back, suing the city and prompting Franklin to insist that both parties go to mediation to resolve the issue.
It was during these drawn-out legal wranglings that Franklin’s fear was realized: the state legislature was in session while Demorest and the club battled it out, and it overturned the ordinance before a resolution could be reached. Although disappointed with the outcome, Demorest found some reassurance in knowing that many of the other club members supported their efforts to change the policy, and that the club rightfully received negative press for its outdated policies. “They got a black eye for it in public, and a black eye among other clubs,” says Demorest. “But it’s one thing that will probably always stay with me.”
After the lawsuit, Demorest channeled her energies into her work, her activism with the HRC, and raising the twin boy and girl that she adopted with Lee. But even with all that she has accomplished, the ambitious and tenacious Demorest shows no signs of settling down into a quiet life anytime soon. “I’m just getting to the point where I’m thinking, ok, what’s your next passion gonna be?” she says. “It doesn’t have to be gay stuff. But that’s the place I’m in right now – finding my next passion.”