Throughout Pride Month, we'll be speaking with firm leaders and members of the LGBTQ+ community about their careers, their lives outside of work, and their thoughts on advancing representation in the workplace. In this interview, we hear from LGBTQA Resource Group partner chair Robert Christmas.
Where did you grow up? If you live and work somewhere different now, what drew you there?
From kindergarten through high school I lived in Utah, spending summers with my mother’s family in a small railroad/mining town in the Southern Utah desert (Milford, pop. 1100) or with my father’s family in Southern California. While I loved the physical beauty of both states, after attending Pomona College in southern California and spending time in Washington, DC and New York City as a junior, I wanted to live and work in NYC.
In college, I minored in architectural history, spent a lot of time in the music department, and worked in the art history department, so I wanted to live in a city that had great museums, architecture, opera and theater; more importantly, I came to realize I was gay in my freshman year of college, and (at the time, in the 1980s) NYC was one of the very few places in the US where it was legally and socially possible to have relative freedom to live as an LGBTQ+ person.
How long have you been at NP? What has most surprised you about the path of your career?
I have been at NP for 29 years. I have been very fortunate to have had a wide variety of clients and types of work, from bankruptcy matters (including many cross-border cases representing non-US clients and foreign administrators/liquidators), to general commercial litigations and state/federal appeals, to authoring government financing statutes and structuring local government financings – the arc of which has given me the opportunity to still be intellectually challenged by the law after many decades. I think what has most surprised me is how little one can predict the breadth of areas your career will involve if you do this a long time.
What skills, interests, or passions do you have that drew you to the law?
There are many schoolteachers and a few performing artists in my family, so I grew up being encouraged to be verbal. I came to enjoy teaching and public speaking, have always relished my courtroom and client teaching work. I also love solving problems. In small Utah towns there were not always a lot of service providers, and my maternal grandfather had been a scientist for the US Department of Agriculture during WWII, so consistent with the local “do it yourself” attitude I learned to do and repair lots of things, including laying concrete and tile, putting up drywall, repairing cars, and doing auto painting and body work. (Cars were not computers then.) The problem-solving aspects of law appeal very much to this part of me. Lastly, my maternal family very strongly believed in fairness and justice (including economic justice) for all Americans, and being raised with those values I wanted to have the skills to help others.
Did you always see yourself as a lawyer, or did you aspire to a different career before choosing law?
I always expected to be a lawyer.
How would you describe the outlook for junior LGBTQ+ attorneys now, compared to what it was when you started your career?
While obviously very much incomplete in some regions of the US, the abundant resources, support, relationship and other legal protections, and general freedom that junior LGBTQ+ attorneys now have (including to take on pro bono LGBTQ+ clients and be their authentic selves at work), were inconceivable when I graduated from law school in the late 1980s. Large urban law firms started to take on cases for the community, but friends of mine who were not partners were afraid to put their names on briefs. Our basic rights to live as full citizens were then the subject of vitriolic and hateful constant public debates, because federal and state governments, organized religion, and other institutions granted us none. At the same time, those governments and institutions were indifferent at best, and murderously hostile at worst, during the HIV pandemic that killed a generation of us. To give you a sense of that era, homophobic jokes that also made light of the HIV pandemic were commonplace at White House briefings during the Reagan administration.
Are there particular LGBTQ+ role models that influenced your decision to become an attorney?
There were no conventional LGBTQ+ role models for those of us intent on (i) traditional legal careers and (ii) effecting change through existing structures. The late Harvey Milk was not a conventional public figure, and he ran for office completely as an outsider. Even brave people, like transgender tennis legend Renee Richards, were treated as freaks. So I had to look more broadly. I wanted to be like Joseph Welch, the Hale & Dorr partner who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy on national television in the 50s (rebroadcast when I was a child), who said: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” I also idolized Barbara Jordan, a lawyer from Texas who was the first Black woman elected to Congress from a Southern state and one of the greatest speakers of the 20th Century. As a child in 1974, I heard her give a powerful opening statement for the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing on Richard Nixon. Her speech was a staunch defense of the US Constitution (which, she noted, had not initially included African Americans in its “We, the people”) and its checks and balances designed to prevent abuse of power. She said “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” (Look for these speeches on YouTube!)
What is your proudest achievement to date?
Being a parent. My spouse John and I have three children, one age 17 and 16-year-old twins, one through adoption and two through IVF. It was not easy (and still is not!), took years, and cost more than I want to think about -- given the need for surrogacy, IVF procedures, and multiple adoption proceedings (and surrogacy candidates who lied to us). Parenthood is not for everyone (and I claim no superiority of any kind for having become a parent), but I wanted it for a long time, having grown up with a large extended family. I have to say that people at the firm were amazing when our kids were born – we received more congratulatory gifts and messages from colleagues than I did from the majority of my own family.
What is something (other than the law) you are great at doing?
Music and baking. I spent part of my undergraduate education training as a singer (and my partner for six years was the late counter-tenor and baritone Michael Dash). When our children were small, being homebound I took up making bread and other complicated baking projects, which I found relaxing because they are “earthy” and at times you have to be totally immersed in them. I am also interested in family histories of food. Though I am descended from Ashkenazi German Jews and American Southerners, neither of those rich and historic cuisines made it past 1900 in my family, so I have had to learn them. Unfortunately for my waistline, I’m afraid my motto has become “no carb left behind.”
What is one piece of advice you would give to a rising LGBTQ+ attorney?
Find ways, through pro bono or otherwise, to make a difference. There is no greater satisfaction in the law than that. We as lawyers have great privilege in having our law licenses, and I think with that comes great responsibility to give back.