The Right Coast

March 16, 2006
Say It Ain't So, Ropes & Gray
By Gail Heriot

Lawyers in Boston have a fine history of ensuring that everyone--no matter how politically unpopular--gets legal representation. That history dates back at least as far as the Boston Massacre in 1770, when John Adams--at some risk to his own political popularity--undertook to represent the British soldiers who had been accused of murder. Adams was not about to allow an angry mob to tell him whom he could represent and whom he could not.

Ropes & Gray, Boston's leading law firm, however, may not be part of that grand old tradition. If yesterday's Boston Globe story is to be believed, the estimable Ropes & Gray attorneys may have been intimidated into abandoning an existing client by a group of (gasp!) unhappy Harvard law students who threatened not to like them anymore.

Up until two weeks ago, Ropes & Gray represented Catholic Charities of Boston, which in addition to its other charitable work, provided adoption services. In particular, it excelled in "hard to adopt cases" in which the child involved was older than the average adopted child, handicapped, or bore the scars of abuse or addiction. Catholic Charities came under fire, because its policy was not to place children with gay couples, and Massachusetts law now prohibits adoption agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Catholic Charities felt it could not abandon Catholic teachings in this area and apparently sought a religious dispensation from the law.

This did not sit well with Harvard's gay and lesbian students, according to the Boston Globe. (The Globe reports that Ropes & Gray was helping Catholic Charities to "explore ways to prevent same-sex couples from adopting children," but this is almost certainly error. Other reports state that Catholic Charities' position is simply that, given its religious views on the matter, it should not be required to assist in such adoptions. See Jeff Jacoby's column.)

According to the Globe:

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."

Instead of an actual boycott, a representative of the students met with Ropes & Gray's managing partner. That seems to have been enough to send Ropes & Gray running for cover. Thereafter, it announced it would no longer represent Catholic Charities in connection with the gay adoption issue. A week later, Catholic Charities caved to pressure and announced it would no longer provide adoption services, because it could not reconcile Catholic doctrine with the requirements of Massachusetts law.

Of course, Ropes & Gray does not admit that it was intimidated by a bunch of law students. (Startlingly, however, it does not deny it.) But the ONLY acceptable response to a bunch of snot-nosed brats telling it whom to represent is to tell them to take a hike. If Ropes & Gray had been even considering terminating its representation of Catholic Charities for any reason before receiving the student threats (or even a whiff of threats), it should have insisted on continuing once that message was received. And that would be true whether the students were angry because Catholic Charities opposes gay adoptions, angry because it supports them or just plain angry. Even appearing to cave to such tactics is inappropriate. And an attorney who fails to understand this isn't fit to appear before a court of law.

Note to all Ropes & Gray clients and prospective clients: Pray that your cause never becomes unpopular with law students, because if it does, Ropes & Gray may be willing to abandon you as quickly as it seems to have abandoned its representation of Catholic Charities.

If you're in the vicinity of the First Unitarian Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, that noise you're hearing is John Adams spinning in his grave.

Addendum: See Part II above.