The Richmond Bridge

Diana Richmond works to connect new ideas of family with old ideas of family law

Published in 2009 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2009

Oh, the secrets Diana Richmond knows.

Richmond has handled countless premarital agreements and divorces for the Bay Area's elite, and many of her clients are judges and high-profile attorneys. "I'm the repository of a trove of secrets and fascinating and unusual tales," she says. Unfortunately for gossipmongers, the Wisconsin native would never spill the beans. "I'm a naturally private person, so I sympathize with my clients' desire for privacy." Besides the garden-variety divorces she handles, Richmond, now a partner at Sideman & Bancroft, often steps into uncharted legal territory regarding same-sex partnerships and complex parentage determinations.

In one particularly heated battle, she represented a lesbian mother of twins whose former partner was suing to establish parental rights. Richmond's client had gestated and birthed the twins from ova donated by her ex-partner. The unique situation created a media frenzy, and ended up in front of the California Supreme Court. While the Court ultimately ruled in favor of the ova donor, Richmond's work was lauded as exemplary in its elegance and integrity.

It's not the first time the attorney has been noticed for excellence in her field. In 2007, Richmond was presented with the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists Hall of Fame award. She was named as one of the "Top 25 Attorneys in the Bay Area" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Fellow family law specialist Garrett Dailey says, "I don't know a single person who doesn't respect her abilities or integrity."

Richmond initially avoided family law. When she graduated from Golden Gate University School of Law in 1973, she was offered a position with the now-defunct Stern, Stotter, Rosenberg and O'Brien. "I accepted the offer on the condition that I didn't have to do family law," she says, shaking her head and adding with a shrug, "the arrogance of youth." 

Richmond's mother was a homemaker, and her father was a wildlife artist who was employed by the Milwaukee Public Museum to paint nature dioramas. At the time, she says she had two main interests—writing and "getting out of Wisconsin."

She soon succeeded in both pursuits—she attended the University of Chicago and studied English. After she graduated, Richmond worked as an editor at the American Judicature Society (AJS), where a career in law first appeared on her radar.

"Being at the AJS was paradoxically inspiring," Richmond explains. "I looked around me at a number of the lawyers and thought, 'If these people could become lawyers, I could as well.'" She grins, both amused and a bit embarrassed by this brash-sounding revelation of her younger self.

Richmond's introduction to law at the AJS coincided with a '60s-era Chicago. She recalls the riots after Martin Luther King's death and the turbulence of the Democratic National Convention.

"I lived there when the National Guard was camped out in the park. I was around when members of the Black Panthers were assassinated," she says. She also attended a day in the trial of the Chicago Eight. "I was struck by the passionate lawyering and an extremely rigid and defensive judge," she says.

Inspired by the socio-political activism happening all around her, she decided to apply to law school. She was interested in the issue of decriminalizing marijuana, and considered criminal defense work as a possible path. The idea of defending hard drug users, however, had no appeal for her.

Ultimately, she didn't have to choose a career direction—the direction chose her. Just before starting law school in Chicago, she visited a friend in San Francisco. Impulsively, Richmond decided to move to the Bay Area. "It was so green and beautiful, I just couldn't even consider going back to a Chicago winter," she says.

Richmond applied to law schools in San Francisco and found work doing research for a couple of young attorneys while she waited to hear. "I was extremely fortunate," she says. "One of the lawyers had me working on a brief for a civil rights case in the California Supreme Court." The case involved demonstrators who had been arrested during a protest. "I was quite inadequate to the task," she admits with a self-deprecating laugh, "but it was certainly a privilege to work on it."

Once at Golden Gate Law, Richmond continued to assist on cases. One of her employers, Larry Stotter, had a case that afforded her the opportunity to challenge the statute that made the husband the manager of community property in a marriage. "With his encouragement, I jumped into it completely," she recalls. "It was a wonderful opportunity to challenge a sexist law." While Richmond surmises that it wasn't a very good case to raise an equal protection issue, and ultimately the appeal didn't succeed, she was thrilled.

During her third year in law school, she had the opportunity to take on a significant constitutional challenge. The enthusiastic student spent an entire semester of independent study attempting to answer a professor's question as to whether the 13th Amendment could be applied to the issue of gender discrimination as well as racial discrimination.

"I said, 'Why not?'" Richmond recalls. "I spent the semester going back to congressional records, looking at post-Civil-War-era materials, and investigating the origins of the 13th Amendment. I was totally enthralled, and found it very exciting."

In 1973, Richmond graduated with highest honors, and immediately began plaintiffs' injury cases at Stern, Stotter, Rosenberg and O'Brien, soaking up the guidance of her mentor, Ed Stern. "He tutored me on a 'lawyer's judgment,' which you don't learn in law school, and would take twice as long to learn in practice if you didn't have an experienced person standing over you and saying, 'But is that the smart thing to do?'"

Initially she steered clear of family law, but along the way it became her favorite practice area. "Once I started doing family law, I loved it. It's personal and it involves making a difference in the life of a family," she says. "Intellectually, I love the range of skills it calls upon, and the many different substantive areas of law it uses." Soon it was her specialty, and clearly a well-suited one. "In my 35 years of practice, I've never been bored," she says. In 1977 Richmond ventured out on her own.

From the beginning, she was drawn to parentage issues, particularly those involving the recognition of dual parentage for same-sex couples. "I was interested in establishing the opportunity for a non-birth mother to be recognized as a parent in the state of California," she says. Her opportunity to investigate those issues came to her in the form of a client who needed help from the opposite side of that page. "A woman who was the birth mother of her children came to me with a very legitimate issue where she and her partner had contracted for ovum donation rather than parentage," she says.

In the highly publicized case, K.M. v. E.G., Richmond argued that the parties' original intentions should be honored in the same way those of a sperm donor are honored. Her case prevailed at the trial court level, and the Court of Appeal, but not at the Supreme Court level. A 4-to-2 decision ruled against her client and for K.M. despite a state law that says a man who donates his semen to impregnate a woman who is not his wife is not a legal father.

Along with K.M. v. E.G., the court issued decisions in two companion cases. Richmond feels the other two rulings laid out the rules for co-parenting more artfully. "I completely agree that both members of a lesbian couple who agree to and raise a child born to either of them during their relationship should be considered the child's mothers even after their relationship ends, but the ruling in our case made a hash of legal principles," she says. "It created an inconsistency in the law for the treatment of sperm donors as well as egg donors and foists responsibility on people who weren't really willing to commit to be parents."

Even when parentage doesn't involve a third party, the legal territory can still get very murky. "A lot of parenting situations have yet to be fleshed out. Often through remarriage or successive relationships, a child has parent-like relationships with more than one father or more than one mother," Richmond says. She's pleased to see the courts recognize people who are not biological parents as legal parents based on their serving in that capacity.

Over the years, Richmond says she's discovered that a whole lot about what a future marriage is likely to be can be predicted from the premarital negotiations. The current trend she sees among first-time young couples is an effort to create financial autonomy from one another. "I try to encourage their creation of a financial community," she says. "I feel hopeful when I see a level of mutual support where the parties intentionally want to provide for each other from the beginning."

Though aspects of her work can be depressing, more often she finds the work gratifying, particularly since she's focused her practice more on mediation and private judging. "I like to emphasize problem solving rather than zealous advocacy, which I feel is ill-suited to family law," she says.

Even after years of handling divorces and seeing couples at their worst, Richmond is still a proponent of marriage. Before Proposition 8 was introduced, she authored an amicus brief on behalf of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers for In re Marriage Cases in support of same-sex marriage. "Writing the brief reminded me of how much a legal marriage can bring to a couple's life.

"If you look at it anthropologically, you become part of a defined community when you get married—you know who your in-laws are, your aunts and uncles." Richmond believes that even the simplicity of being able to name familial relationships provides a source of intangible comfort that didn't exist before for same-sex couples.

"I admire the courage of many same-sex couples in creating their own relationships and redefining family to suit their own purposes, but for all of those people who want to marry and have legal recognition of their commitment to each other, I can see no legal, rational or cultural justification for denying them that opportunity," she says.

Compared to the complexity in the family configurations she's dealt with, Richmond's own family life seems simple. She has one daughter by her former husband. And when she and her ex divorced, Richmond says that it was "civilized and low-key."

Not only does she still believe in marriage, Richmond claims that years of working with divorcing couples has not made her cynical about love. Richmond has even written a novel to be published this year about a Civil Rights-era interracial relationship. She's currently working on a second novel that includes a cast of lawyer characters and some unusual parenting issues.

And perhaps the best proof of her belief in the workings of partnership? Richmond was remarried last year.

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