You may think of Estate Planning as a solid, dull, and conventional area of law, but we live in a time of unforeseen growth in our aging population. We live in a time where the very concept of family is in flux. And our guest today shows how Estate Planning law may actually be at the forefront in challenging all our old conventions.
Learn more about Laura Gray on her website.
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Katie: You may think of estate planning as a solid, dull and conventional area of law but we live in a time of unforeseen growth in our aging population. We live in a time where the very concept of family is in flux. Our guest today shows how estate planning law might actually be at the forefront in challenging all of our old conventions.
This is The Filevine Fireside and I’m Katie Wolf.
In the Salt Lake City office of Laura Milliken Gray, there sits huge bulletin boards. They are covered in pictures of parents with their children smiling for the camera with messages of gratitude to Laura. These are the gay, lesbian, queer and trans families that Laura has worked to bring together even when the Utah Legislature was dead set against her work. Laura Milliken Gray has graciously agreed to share with us her experiences as an estate planning attorney on the forefront of massive cultural and demographic change. In addition to her work with the LGBTQ community, Laura focuses on the Elder Law, fighting to protect the autonomy of aging individuals. She’s seen firsthand how the growth of the aging population challenges our legal system and demands the dedication of more attorneys. Thanks for talking with us today Laura.
Laura: My pleasure, Kate.
Katie: Tell us about the work that you do and how you got to be here.
Laura: Well, I have an estate planning firm, a boutique estate planning firm, which basically means we specialize in helping people with Wills, Trusts, Elder Law, everything around planning for potential disability and when people pass away and organizing all of that for them.
Katie: What were the main priorities or values that led you to estate planning, specifically?
Laura: Well, as most things in life, it’s almost a process of elimination. So, I started out my legal practice doing litigation and moved away from that because that was more stressful and harder to control. Then, I moved into an area where I found to be really interactive with people and able to help them. And that was estate planning.
Katie: Estate planning requires guiding people through thoughts of some absolute worst-case scenarios, right?
Katie: You’re helping your client sort of plan for every possible tragedy, so one of my big questions is whether you found that that shapes your thinking, outside of legal practice, is that a difficulty you encounter where in your everyday life you still find yourself looking through all of the possible worst-case scenarios?
Laura: Well, I think that as an attorney you have a certain amount of cynicism about the world anyways. You’re trained to see risk and liability, so in that sense, yes. My practice is so much about helping people at times when it can be very tragic, can be very dysfunctional, can be scary when I’m trying to protect elderly people who are being subject to exploitation and so I do sort of try and leave all of that at the office so when I go from here I try not to think about it all because I don’t think I’d be able to do it otherwise. I’d get too burnt out.
Katie: Is there anything from you practice that actually helps give you optimism?
Laura: All the time! My area of law, estate planning, is really focused on actually meeting with people, getting to know them, their stories, their goals, their secrets and helping meet those goals and helping to protect them. So, I think that having that personal relationship with them is so important. It’s something I really thrive on because my clients, I love them all, and they’re all really interesting and there’s always something about anyone that you can connect to.
Katie: As you’re talking, I’m just struck by the way that your work is very different from what is typical in our culture. Actually, having forethought about how our lives are going to be as we age or as disabilities happen, these are things that we so much don’t want to talk about. So infrequently are we actually willing to sit down with those we love and go over that. Do you think that that’s the case? That our culture is one that’s very resistant to diving into those topics?
Laura: Yes, on some level there is a lot of fear and stigma around incapacity, mental illness, death and dying, right? We are uncomfortable with that but there is also a movement now to really look at death differently so that it can be met with dignity. Part of that is making sure that you have really clear guidelines set out that your loved ones can follow when you get to that situation where you’re at the end of a terminal illness and we’re really seeing people redefine what that means and what that looks like and part of that is being proactive about getting your affairs in order.
Katie: I have a question about, to put it crassly, sort of building your brand in a community. How to earn your community’s respect and market yourself as an expert in certain fields of law. I want to ask you about this because you are so well known and respected in this community. You’re in the newspaper, you’re beloved by the current mayor of Salt Lake City, Jackie Biskupski, do you want to tell us a little bit about how that happened?
Laura: I really decided after doing litigation and a lot of Divorce Law for a while I didn’t want to do that and I wanted to start doing estate planning and so I literally built my business out of nothing and I noticed at that time that there was a real lack of representation for people in the LGBT community. This was a time way before gay marriage, way before there were any organizations in Utah besides the ACLU that were willing to step up and protect gay people and trans people and they had nowhere to turn. And so, being gay myself, I decided that I was going to start helping these people and I’ve always wanted to be involved with certain communities and so my people have been LGBT community and the elderly. So, back then I started advertising and doing things literally like going to Gay Pride and walking around with a knapsack passing out fliers and walking up to people and saying, “Hey, do you have a Will? Have you done an estate plan? What happens if you die? Will your partner be able to inherit from you?” Because without these documents gay couples weren’t able to make a medical decision for each other, weren’t able to visit each other in the hospital, were being disinherited, were being tossed out of their partner’s house, had their kids taken from them, so there was this huge gap of protection for this community and I jumped into that and I taught myself and learned along the way. I had one mentor, Jane Marcourt, who is an amazing attorney, who helped me and Jackie Biskupski, our mayor and I started doing some activism together. This was way before she was in the legislature as our mayor. We were doing it because it was the right thing to do and it was scary and I was concerned that it would affect my practice on some level but the really amazing thing, Kate, was as soon as I started reaching out to this group of people and protecting them, that whole community started coming to me and it was the beginning of this amazingly successful practice because all of a sudden that whole community had representation for the first time. When I decided to be true to myself and be out in the community, all of that just started coming my way. It was one of those, “the truth will set you free,” and “what you put out you will get back.” So, fast forward 20 years and that has turned into being the estate planning attorney to everybody. I started representing people in the trans community, doing name changes and birth certificate changes at a time when that was basically unheard of and just build a whole practice around that and over the years I received a lot of press because there was no one else around. I used to joke that I was the voice for all the queers. It’s like Laura Gray, authority on all things queer. Now, fortunately, there is lots of other queer people who can be that voice but back in 1996, there were just so few of us.
Katie: Before we started talking, you took me into your office and showed me a board that’s just covered with pictures of families. Do you want to tell me about what that board is and what it means to you?
Laura: So, when I first started my practice in 1996, there was no way that gay couples could adopt children, at least that they thought they had because gay people couldn’t get married and had no legal protections for their families so I had some couples come to me who were raising kids, one of them a lesbian couple, one of whom was the biological parent, raising kids with her lesbian partner, come to me and say, “I want my partner to adopt these kids so these kids have a home, so they have social security benefits, so they can be supported by my partner and get on her health insurance, etc., why can’t I do this?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know why not. Let’s try it.” So, I started doing second parent adoption for mostly lesbian couples and started slowly convincing judges that they could do that under Utah law, which is usually used for step parents.
Katie: But then Utah law changed, right?
Laura: Well, yes, so I started doing these adoptions and a few other attorneys started doing them as well and we had the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. We went in and we convinced judges that this was a good thing to do for these families and it was in these children’s best interest. So, I did a lot of these on what I call “the down low,” which means doing them quietly at court, not raising a stink, not going to the press and just helping families, one by one, and that’s where the pictures came from, were the families that I was helping. In the year 2000, the people who were against letting gay couples adopt ran and passed a law basically that had the effect of banning adoptions by same sex couples.
Katie: The idea was that you couldn’t cohabitate with somebody and adopt a child, you could be a single person and adopt a child but you couldn’t be living with a partner that you were not married to and adopt.
Laura: You either had to be single or married and so they just figured well, because gay people can’t get married, this will keep gay couples from ever being able to adopt. And so that was a real tragedy. I spent a lot of time trying to lobby against that along with Jackie Biskupski, our mayor, and we ultimately failed and that was just one of the many times in those early days when we just were devastated and heartbroken and had to pick ourselves back up out of the gutter and fight another day and so it took many years for that law to be overturned. It wasn’t until 13 years later.
Katie: I have a question about that time as well because at the end of 2013, suddenly gay marriage was legalized and then the practice was stopped then in early 2014 and then you had another 10 months before the Supreme Court ruling came out legalizing it. I’m wondering what it was like to practice in those months of total chaos and legal limbo.
Laura: So, I still remember that weekend, the ruling came out on a Friday, and I spent the entire weekend fielding texts, calls and emails from numerous clients of mine who had kids that they’ve wanted to adopt with their partners, now spouses because they were getting married, and wanting to know from me, what did I know and could they do it? So, I started filing those cases and filed six or seven of them in that short period of time before the court issued its initial stay. So, it was crazy. People were just elated but we didn’t know what it meant. So, I was on the phone with different activists throughout the country, trying to frame what our response was going to be and what it meant for all of these clients.
Katie: I read a newspaper article from a decade ago that quotes you saying, “The tide has turned. The opposition is trying to keep the sun from rising and they have to know that.” That kind of confidence a decade ago before all of these rights were put in place, were you always that confident? Were you always certain of, “Yeah, this is coming. This is happening.”
Laura: Well, we always tried to stay optimistic but we also were used to being kicked in the teeth and getting back up. So, it was more just a matter of determination. Maybe optimism as well, but I don’t think that any of us thought that gay marriage would come so fast and in the way that it did here in Utah. That’s the way change happens. It ebbs and flows and all of a sudden something can snowball. But there were lots of times I can remember over the years when I was just in tears and very discouraged but it never took me long to pull myself back up and say, “Okay, I was depressed last night and today I’m ready to go again.”
Katie: I remember when I was a kid in Southern Utah, hearing about this high school in Salt Lake that had a gay/straight alliance club. Everyone around me was shocked and appalled by it. People were very worried about what this meant. Do you want to tell your story about your work with that?
Laura: So, what was happening was, there was a group of gay and misfit kids at East High who wanted to form a club so that they could hang out and support each other. Some of them were gay and some of them weren’t. They were just the uncool kids, right? They wanted to form a club. They got a teacher there, Camille Lee, who became a good friend of mine. They formed a club and a lot of the parents and some of the kids started protesting and complaining, saying, “Oh no, these kids can’t meet. They’re horrible. They’re going to influence our children, etc.” So, the school board banned all clubs because that was the only way they could legally ban the gay club. So, that turned into a huge mess and a group of attorneys from the ACLU, Lambda Legal and National Center for Lesbian Rights, brought this lawsuit in Salt Lake City to challenge this law and it was the first in the country. Glisten, which is an organization for the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Student Alliance, were looking for a couple of local attorneys to help with the case so I cluelessly volunteered, not knowing what I was getting myself into. I started being a liaison with the kids. My law office at the time was right down the street from East High. So, the kids would come down to my office after school sometimes and it was really amazing to hang out with them. They were the courageous ones. It’s one thing to be a lawyer, that’s what we do, but to be a kid in 1996, 1997, coming out, being vocal, being different and trying to find your voice and being stomped on by the community here, that took real courage. And some of those kids were having their tires slashed and their lockers rooted through and they were the ones who stood up. I think what I’ve always thought is that if these kids can do it, I sure can on their behalf. I think going back to what you asked me about, Kate, about the board I have, where I have pictures of some of the East High plaintiffs and a lot of my families and their kids. I look at them and that’s where I get my inspiration and courage from.
Katie: One thing that surprised me as I was looking through articles about you is how much the lobbyists and the attorneys who are on the opposing side from you have this respect and they like you. They speak highly of you. You know, Gayle Ruzicka with the Eagle Forum and figures like this were saying, “Oh yeah, Laura Milliken Gray, she’s great. Of course, she’s on the wrong side of things but what a good person.” What’s your secret for engaging with opposing counsel or those on the other side of an issue to build this sort of respect and rapport.
Laura: Well, I think it comes down to honesty and integrity first of all. I’ve never been one to play dirty tricks. I’ve always been a straight shooter, a queer straight shooter. (laughter) I guess you earn that respect, right? By fighting those wars and being polite, I mean it doesn’t do you any good to denigrate an opponent. My approach has always been to kill people with kindness and if that doesn’t work, then you can start pounding on them. (laughter)
Katie: Plan B.
Laura: Plan B! But I do remember one time with Gayle Ruzicka at the legislature, and I admire her and talk about grass roots lobbying and being able to get your message across, she is the master of that. But one time when I was testifying on behalf of all the gay families to try to keep them from passing the adoption ban, she was in the room and they allowed one or two people to speak and I was one of them. So, I had to stand up and it was terrifying. We knew we were going to lose. And when I was walking out of the room, I looked over at her and I had to walk right by her and I said, “See you in court!” (laughter) It was one of those quintessential moments when you get to say that. But I always did admire her and I mean you get used to being a member of a group that’s on the edges of society. You just get used to fighting that battle.
Katie: Was it in 2008 to 2010 you took a two-year hiatus from your work here in Utah and started doing something completely different in a completely different place? Do you want to tell us a little bit about that experience?
Laura: So, basically, I fell in love with a British woman and moved to the U.K. for two years, a British/Polish woman. When I met her, it was the same time I was getting a little tired of my practice and tired of living in Utah and wanting to do something completely different and I met, Agnieszka and we fell in love. She was living in London and I was living here in Salt Lake City. We tried to get her into the U.S. but we couldn’t because gay people couldn’t get married. We tried to get her a work visa and that lottery is very hard to be successful in so we were denied that so we had no way of being together in this country so at a time when I was a little tired of what I was doing, I said, “Okay, well I’m going to move and give this a try because while it wasn’t marriage, they had a civil partnership status in the U.K. where I could move there and eventually get citizenship, so I did it. I left my practice, left everything I knew and went on this great adventure.
Katie: Then you started studying human rights law and you worked as a consultant to the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees. What was that experience like?
Laura: That was stunning. That was one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever had the privilege of doing. I had always done a lot of what we call, “civil rights” in this country for the LGBT community, and in the rest of the world they call “human rights” and so when I moved to London I started volunteering with an organization that helped LGBT refugees go through the asylum process in the U.K. I was very humbled actually working and meeting and hearing the stories of refugees from all over the world, places where people are persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity from Jamaica to the Middle East, lots of countries in Africa and so I started helping this small organization protect those people. That was amazing in and of itself and was completely humbling because here I’d been in Utah but Utah is this lily-white place, and yes, LGBT people have a hard time here and I wouldn’t want to downplay that but when you start meeting people who escaped from prison in Iran and fled in a truck across Turkey and into the U.K. and are now hiding on the street because they were going to be executed in Iran, it really starts bringing things home. So, I had enough experience working with this organization in the U.K. and actually studying international human rights at the London School of Economics and that together helped me land a consultancy for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. I was very fortunate to get that. So, what I was able to do was to help UNHCR formulate their policy around protecting LGBT refugees because it didn’t exist. There’s a process for how the United Nations proceeds and creates its guidelines and policies that they then promulgate globally and I was able to be a part of UNHCR creating those guidelines to protect LGBT refugees and it was just amazing, but really difficult because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Katie: Did you think while you were there that this was going to be the rest of your life? You were going to do this now? Or did you always know this was just a break from your other work?
Laura: No, I didn’t really know which direction my life was going to go at that point. I knew after a couple of years there that living in London was not going to be a place that I wanted to live and that ultimately, I’m a Utah mountain girl and the mountains are what make my soul sing and so I knew I was going to return here. For a while after I did return, I was able to do some more consulting with the U.N. but it became more and more difficult because of the distance so it turned out to be a hiatus but it was truly amazing work.
Katie: If there were a young attorney looking into getting estate planning and they’ve taken all the right classes, what’s the advice that you would give them that they wouldn’t ever get in school?
Laura: I think it would be to make sure that you really are able to connect with the people you represent and listen to them and make sure you find out what their goals are and that you are there to help them meet those within the parameters of the practice. That’s what I do and then let them know that you’re going to be there to protect them if anything ever happens and that you’re going to do that and be super kind and nice. If that doesn’t work, then you’re going to beat the shit out of whoever it is who is messing with your client.
Katie: That’s great.
Laura: That’s what’s so great about this area is that you can protect people when they need it. And, Kate, financially it’s a great area of the law and there’s nothing wrong with being able to protect people and be financially successful. That’s another important lesson is that they’re not mutually exclusive, okay? You can do both and I’m evidence of that. I’m an example of that.
Katie: Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I really appreciate it.
Laura: It’s such a pleasure Kate. Thank you.