18-year Navy vet Stephen Lessard reps soldiers with LGBT matters and PTSD issues
Published in 2016 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 21, 2016
Updated on September 29, 2016
When Stephen Lessard enrolled at Texas A&M on an ROTC scholarship in 1980, his plan was to graduate with a political science degree, serve his four years in the Navy and then attend law school. But Lessard liked the Navy. So much so that it was 18 years before he made it to Georgetown Law—and even then he found a way to mesh the law with his love of the armed services.
Lessard did an internship with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, primarily advising service members about their rights under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy prohibiting homosexual and bisexual military personnel from disclosing their sexual orientation.
“People who really felt that they had nowhere else to turn could turn to us and get some answers,” says Lessard, 54.
The work was also personal.
“I am gay. I lived in the military under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and felt like I wanted to be able to help individuals in the same situation I was in,” says Lessard. “I’ve always had an affinity for causes for the LGBT community and an affinity for causes for veterans in general. Being able to marry those two has been nice.”
Lessard is now a senior associate in the tax group at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, where he does about 200 hours of pro bono work per year. He was recently honored for that work with a 2016 President’s Pro Bono Service Award from the New York State Bar Association.
In 2010, Lessard helped establish the New York County Lawyers’ Association’s U.S. Tax Court Calendar Call Pro Bono Program; it helps New Yorkers who cannot afford counsel represent themselves before the U.S. Tax Court. The first program of its kind, it has served as a model for others throughout the country.
He’s also represented transgender veterans who want to change their discharge certificates to match their name changes, and he assists veterans who are trying to upgrade less-than-honorable discharges—arguing that they had undiagnosed PTSD and other traumas—so they can get full benefits.
One of these clients is Kristofer Goldsmith, a soldier who, as a 19-year-old, was tasked with documenting mass graves in Iraq. That led to drinking. When he returned to the U.S., and his period of enlistment was completed, Goldsmith was stop-lossed and his unit ordered to return to Iraq. When he attempted suicide, he was discharged from the Army and he’s been fighting to upgrade the characterization of that discharge, as well as the narrative of separation, ever since.
Goldsmith says his experience in the Army made him distrustful of officers, so he was wary when he met Lessard.
“But Steve was a different kind of officer,” says Goldsmith. “He’s a humanitarian. Instead of viewing me as disposable, as I think the officers in my own unit did, it’s obvious he cares for others.”
Though Goldsmith’s initial petition and two appeals to get an upgrade were denied, Lessard is working on another appeal. Seeing how many service members were showing up to upgrade hearings without legal representation also prompted Lessard to train other lawyers to represent them. He says work like this makes him feel he’s fulfilling his purpose as a lawyer.
“There’s personal satisfaction, but there’s also a debt that I feel is owed by the profession to the community that allows it to flourish,” says Lessard. “It’s a similar commitment to country through service in the military.”
Lessard’s Pro Bono Projects
Lessard feels pro bono is a professional duty as well as incredibly rewarding. “You’re helping individuals who, generally, have nowhere else to turn and are incredibly appreciative of anything we do for them,” he says.
New York County Lawyers’ Association
U.S. Tax Court Calendar Call Program
212-267-6646, ext. 217
Urban Justice Center Veterans Advocacy Project
Military Discharge Upgrade Program
New York Legal Assistance Group
LGBT Law Project