Queering my Legal Practice, Part 1: Queerness as a Lens

Hi JWPC Blog Readers,

Some of you have met me, some of you haven’t. So… I’m Erika(she), I am one of the associates here at JWPC. My background and passion is in food system change, but this post isn’t about that. This two-part post is about my queerness and its impact on my legal practice.

I live in Massachusetts—where, despite only having marriage equality for 18 years—queerfolk generally are able to be safely “out” in their communities, jobs, and (often) families. I recently bought a house with my partner in a very rural county of Vermont and have been traveling to see family in Ohio, where I grew up.

While traveling, I felt the familiar and unsettling weight of homophobia. And the questions start to flood in: should we hold hands here? Will someone say I’m in the “wrong” restroom or double check the sign? Will a stranger on the street tell me I’d be pretty if I didn’t cut my hair? Is any of this really happening? Am I the biased one?—- some of you will probably recognize these questions. (A quick shout out to two very special Ohio queer spaces: Cent’s & Tender Mercy).

This trip got me thinking: how does queerness impact my professional life, and how can I center it even more? I’ve decided to write this reflection to “say gay” and to continue, decidedly, to be “out” despite community violence or perceptions of “unprofessionalism”.

Queerness is, for me, an act of joy, radical self-love, and protest. I am living as myself and building my life with the person I love despite social pressure and non-access to fundamental rights. Queerness has created an outlook for me of: we’re not going to do this how it’s always been done, we’re not bound by fake rules and archaic systems. Instead, we’re going to look at the problems and systems and make choices to design solutions that get to actual goals.

This appears in my legal approach by not just re-using the same boilerplate documents without thinking about what they’re doing and if they’re necessary. By challenging the rules, we can have better, more transparent, more democratic outcomes, see our Firm Norms on the spirit of inquiry and access to justice. I’m not going to take inherited “wisdom” that is passed down from generation to generation of attorneys that only tells clients “no” or is founded on some mischaracterization of the law designed to keep power consolidated. Instead, I will look at the fact and legal landscapes anew and be creative to solve the problems that my clients are presented with.

I’ve seen clients misgendered by opposing counsel. This isn’t an “honest mistake”, its intimidation and it should be considered unethical, but in most states, it isn’t. Misgendering prevents access to legal resources. JWPC, as a law firm, endorses and affirms the American Bar Association’s Resolution 106A, which encourages the use of pronouns consistent with a person’s identity. We encourage the legal community to go further than the resolution and adopt a model rule that labels, appropriately, intentional and/or repeated misgendering as attorney misconduct. Further, this should be applied to all legal interactions, not just judicial and mediation proceedings. Just like queerness is present in my legal work, we celebrate and support that identity is relevant even where other attorneys might view this as unrelated legal needs.

For me, an unbridled approach to legal analysis and identity-focused legal support is my embodied queerness.

In Solidarity,

Erika Dunyak

*With the exception of the firm-wide endorsement of misgendering as an ethical rule violation, this post is about my experience and relationship with queerness and should not be extrapolated as the experience of all queer people. Further, it is the individual reflections of one staff member at JWPC, and its content shall not be imparted on the firm as a whole.