Enlarging the ‘Family’ in Family Law

Long before Proposition 8, Jeffrey Bollinger was working to legalize same-sex marriage

Published in 2009 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2009

Years before Proposition 8 hit the books in California, Jeffrey Bollinger was making his mark on the issue of same-sex marriage. It was the late '80s/early '90s, and he was a law student at Pepperdine University—a self-professed liberal in an "ultra-conservative" environment. Bollinger, one of only three openly gay students at the law school, decided to write a paper for his comparative law class about the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Little did he know what he was getting himself into. 

His professor—and the school—considered the topic unacceptable, and he was reprimanded for arguing in favor of same-sex marriage. "It was just so strange to me. And just me being me, I turned around and said, 'Well, I'll write another one.' The next year, I took another class and thought, 'Here's another opportunity; let's see what happens this time.' Same thing," he says.

The reaction to those two papers sparked something in Bollinger, now 42. "I never considered myself to be political before that time. I had never been in an environment as challenging, where I was personally challenged. And I think it was a phenomenal experience, that opportunity for me to defend myself, and I had to do that—I had to answer for writing on subjects that were disfavored by the school," he says.

Not that fitting in has ever been high on Bollinger's list of priorities. As a kid, he would wear "ridiculous costumes" to Hebrew school to express his individuality after a day stuck in private-school uniforms. "I had to do that," he says. "If I had to come home and take my uniform off and put on jeans and a T-shirt, I would have died inside every single time."

In college, while other kids his age were partying, he was catering 100-person parties for his parents, who were convinced he'd be a chef. And years later, when he went to law school, he did so with no intent to practice law—he just thought it should be part of one's general education.

Bollinger did stay away from law, as planned, for a full decade after graduation. He worked in public relations and marketing at a start-up company in San Francisco during the Internet boom ("It was phenomenal"), then at an agency in New York. It wasn't until his siblings—both attorneys—started having kids that he felt a pull to move back to Los Angeles. Once there, he found himself at a crossroads. Many people he talked to suggested law, even those who didn't know he'd gone to law school. Figuring they must know something he didn't, he finally opened himself to the idea, and one thing came to mind: family law.

"I specifically chose family law because of my experience in law school," Bollinger says. "My interest was sparked in having written these papers on same-sex marriage a decade earlier and the [family law attorneys] that I had met."

Admittedly, family law provides an interesting contradiction for a gay man in post-Proposition 8 California: Bollinger spends much of his days helping heterosexual couples divorce when he doesn't have the right to marry. Still, as an associate at the family law firm of Phillips, Lerner, Lauzon & Jamra, he's doing what he can to enlarge the "family" in family law. He does work with domestic partnerships, and he's taken an active role in minority bar associations.

In 2007, Bollinger became co-president of the Lesbian & Gay Lawyers Association (LGLA) of Los Angeles, through which he organized social networking events, continuing education programming and work on political and legislative issues, including the gay marriage issue. The group reviewed and signed onto amicus briefs when the gay marriage cases were pending in California and did community outreach when Proposition 8 was looming.

Bollinger's Pepperdine past came back to haunt him during the lead-up to Proposition 8, when a Pepperdine law professor appeared in a TV ad for the "Yes on 8" campaign. And now, he says, Pepperdine University School of Law Dean Kenneth Starr is seeking to have invalidated the 20,000 gay marriages that took place before Proposition 8 passed in November. "My law school has been actively working against my interests as a citizen," Bollinger says.

Which is why it's good, in the end, that Pepperdine prepared him so well to fight for his own interests. Armed with his PR experience and a desire to take a stand, Bollinger is now serving his second year as chair of the Multicultural Bar Alliance of Southern California and has participated in diversity initiatives with the state bar and a bench and bar diversity group in the superior court. And he, along with the LGLA, is involved in efforts to overturn Proposition 8 and spread public awareness about the rights he first wrote about nearly two decades earlier.

That includes stamping out the "air of complacency" leading up to Proposition 8, which Bollinger says he probably shared himself, thinking the proposition would never pass. "Sometimes, learning from failure is the best kind of learning," he says, "because you really remember very clearly. It has staying power."

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