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Harvard Law group hits Ropes & Gray

Lambda urged a halt to work with church on gay-adoption ban

When word spread at Harvard Law School last month that one of the most successful recruiters of its graduates, Ropes & Gray, was helping Catholic Charities explore ways to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children, gay and lesbian students wanted to stop the law firm it its tracks.

There were ''people who were upset and people who were very upset," said Brad Rosen, a first-year student and board member of Lambda, the school's group for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students.

A Lambda representative wound up meeting with Ropes's managing partner and others at the firm and expressing the students' unhappiness.

Two weeks ago, Ropes said it would no longer do legal work to assist the bishops in their efforts to stop gay adoptions, and last week Catholic Charities said it would end its adoption program because it could not reconcile church doctrine, which holds that gay adoptions are ''gravely immoral," with state antidiscrimination laws.

It's unclear what impact, if any, Harvard's students had in Ropes's decision, although they are among the country's most sought-after law graduates.

The firm declined to comment on how much influence Harvard law students had, or on any other issues related to Catholic Charities. ''We don't confirm, deny, or discuss matters regarding our client relationships," said John T. Montgomery, Ropes's managing partner.

To publicize that many students viewed Ropes's work for Catholic Charities as anti-gay, Lambda members discussed staging protest rallies when Ropes arrived on campus this fall to recruit new associates, stationing themselves outside interview rooms to tell entering students about the firm's work for Catholic Charities, or signing up for interview slots and using the time to voice their dismay.

''The words 'boycott-slash-picket' were thrown around," said Peter Renn, a third-year student and Lambda board member who said he had wanted to shame Ropes into ending its work on behalf of Catholic Charities and warn the firm that the issue could hurt recruiting at Harvard.

''Big firms like this are very concerned about public relations, and who in this game is maximally positioned to exert pressure on Ropes & Gray? It's law students," said Renn, who will clerk for a federal district court judge in California after he graduates. ''Attorneys at the firm are in a horrible position, because they don't want to get canned, so they can't say, 'How dare you take that case' and insist the firm withdraw."

Ropes hires more Harvard graduates than any other Boston firm, according to Mark Weber, the school's assistant dean for career services, who said Ropes has a ''great pipeline coming from Harvard" and noted there is a ''Ropes Gray Room" on campus.

Of last year's graduating class of about 550, 17 of the 43 graduates hired by Boston firms went to Ropes & Gray, an ''extraordinary" rate, Weber said.

The next closest Boston firm is Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which hired 3 Harvard graduates last year.

''These students realize the powerful role they can play in shaping the policies of law firms in that they are the future of the firms," said Robert Greenwald, who runs Harvard's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Law Clinic.

Ropes's work for Catholic Charities spurred lengthy discussions among Lambda members about complicated legal and ethical issues, since many students support gay adoption but realize lawyers must represent their clients regardless of whether they share their beliefs.

Many students felt conflicted because Ropes has done pro bono work for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and filed a friend of the court brief in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the case that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003. The brief examined international trends supporting civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Thomas Ling, a third-year law student and Lambda member, called the firm and then met with Montgomery, management committee chairman R. Bradford Malt, and public relations manager John D. Tuerck to discuss its Catholic Charities work.

Ropes declined to discuss the meeting, but noted in a follow-up letter to Lambda co-president Beth Tossell that the firm extends health benefits to domestic partners, and that its anti-discrimination policy protects gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees.

Ling also declined to comment. ''I don't want to be the kid in the press," he said. ''I don't want to violate the confidences of others."

Catholic Charities didn't respond to questions about whether Ropes was paid for its work for Catholic Charities, but Boston archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said, ''What I've been told is a bill has not and will not be issued."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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