Michele Zavos has been an activist for LGBTQ+ rights for all of her professional life. She has advocated for LGBTcouples and parents throughout her career as an attorney. She was recently given the William J. Brennan Jr. Award by the D.C. Bar for her commitment to pursuing equal justice and opportunity for all Americans. This is the first time that the D.C. Bar has recognized family rights as civil rights, and the first time it has named an out member of the LGBTQ+ community as a recipient of the Brennan Award. In addition to her many personal accomplishments, Michele also holds a unique position as one of the founding members of the National LGBT Bar Association.
Michele says our Bar was founded in response to blatant judicial attacks against the LGBT community in the 1980’s. “When the Bowers v. Hardwick decision came out in 1986 [which upheld a Georgia law prohibiting consensual sex between two men], all of us were incredibly angry about it. There were big demonstrations in D.C., and those morphed into demonstrations nationwide in 1987,” she recalls. It was at the national march that Michele and two of her fellow lawyers, Abby Rubenfeld and William Weinberger, planned a meeting of lawyers attending the March in Washington. “We called for a meeting and we thought oh, ten, fifteen people would show up at the GW student center,” she says. “But it was packed – packed! It must have been a couple hundred people.”
The LGBT Bar quickly exploded in membership and now, over thirty years later, holds the largest LGBTQ+ conference in the country, the Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair, every August. This year the Conference will take place in Philadelphia from August 7-9, and Michele plans to attend and continue to nurture the organization she helped found.
As the National LGBT Bar Association has expanded, Michele’s own legal career and activism have also grown. In addition to receiving the Brennan Award, Michele has also been named a top lawyer by Best Lawyers every year since 2012, and has earned numerous awards in family law, estate planning, divorce and adoption services. She has also played an essential role in the passage of laws in D.C. to extend parenting and family rights for LGBT couples. “I worked with Phil Mendelsohn to change the D.C. divorce law so that if you got married in D.C. and your marriage wasn’t recognized in another jurisdiction, you could still get divorced in D.C.,” she says. “We also expanded the jurisdiction for adoption to include the birth of a baby in the District so same-sex couples in Virginia could do a second-parent adoption in DC prior to marriage equality. Right now, I’m also working with Phil again to change adoption laws so people who are married when their child is born are able to do a very brief court procedure so they don’t have to go through the whole adoption process.”
One of the reasons that Michele has been able to successfully argue for the rights of her clients and help enact change on a legislative level is that she has always tried to “straddle the LGBT community and the mainstream Bar” because that is often the best way to get results. “We make up the law, and if you can change the law to make it do what you think is best, that’s great. But when you represent a client you have to represent a client within current law,” she states. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may think one way but have to practice differently because I am working within the current legal system. Sometimes you just have to do that.”
With over forty years of legal experience, Michele is a great role model for young LGBT lawyers and lawyers hoping to try their hand in family law. “I get people calling me all the time – how do I be you? I talk to them about what they need to do, how long it takes, all these things that go into being a lawyer. I think that can be very helpful for young lawyers to hear.”
Michele says that the Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair is a great opportunity for her to connect with lawyers young and old. “For those of us who are older, looking at retirement and reducing our involvement in the daily practice of law, it remains a place where we get to see people we know, talk about things freely, and just give each other support,” she says. “For younger lawyers who are not experienced, still figuring out how to do this and stay sane, [Lavender Law] is a really good place to be.”
Michele is particularly excited to attend the Family Law Institute, one of several Institutes at the Lavender Law® Conference, and talk to other family law experts about their strategies, struggles, and goals for the future. “I’m excited to see people I know and have worked with thirty, forty years and to be in a safe place talking about these issues, what’s going on, our country – a lot of interesting ideas have come out of these conferences,” she says.
As a founding member, a successful advocate, and an experienced lawyer on family law issues, we look forward to welcoming Michele back to the Lavender Law® Conference and hearing what new insights she can offer.