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Same-sex marriage is law clinic's focus

Email|Print| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / December 4, 2007

To address the unique legal dilemmas raised in part by the state's legalization of same-sex marriage in 2003, Harvard Law School has opened a legal clinic that will represent low-income clients.

The student-run Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Law Clinic will provide free and low-cost legal services in cases involving divorce, custody, child support, adoptions, wills, school-related matters, and other family-law and estate planning issues.

Located in Jamaica Plain, the clinic also will do advocacy work to promote the rights and interests of the GLBT community.

For about the past two years, Harvard has offered similar services through the Family Law Clinic at its Legal Services Center. But school administrators recently concluded there was enough demand for discounted legal work among low- and middle-income GLBT clients to establish a freestanding clinic.

This semester, the clinic is staffed by five second- and third-year law students, each of whom work 10 to 20 hours a week.

"We weren't willing to institutionalize it until we had proof that there was a need out in the community, and what became very clear is that there is a strong need," said Robert Greenwald, the clinic's managing attorney. "While there has always been a diverse range of unique family-related issues confronting the GLBT community, there's no question that those legal needs have changed dramatically and increased dramatically over the past few years."

Among the uncharted legal territory are questions over how marital assets should be divided during same-sex divorces, since federal law doesn't recognize same-sex unions as legal marriages; how to ensure that same-sex partners aren't taxed more than heterosexual partners for health insurance benefits; and how to deal with school systems that refuse to use books and curriculums that address gender diversity in families.

The clinic is a collaborative effort with Lambda, a student organization that serves Harvard Law School's GLBT community.

Few other schools have similar initiatives. Last year, Columbia Law School launched a Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic, but its focus is legislative advocacy, public policy analysis, and public education, rather than legal representation of clients.

"It's really interesting to be in Massachusetts working on GLBT issues because they're so hot, they're really new, and anything we do is precedent-setting," said Erika Rickard, 24, a second-year Harvard Law School student who is working at the clinic this semester. "It's an entire population that isn't being served by other legal services now."

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

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