After 150 years in existence, the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) has started another new chapter in the story of inclusion.
Ray J. Koenig III, a longtime attorney for the firm Clark Hill, is the CBA's newest presidentand is also the first openly gay person to fill that role. (In CBA meeting remarks, Koenig spoke about, among other things, why inclusion in the legal profession is very important. Reasons included the emergence of diverse perspectives, access to justice and professional development.)
Koenig recently talked with Windy City Times about this historic development as well as activism and politics.
Note: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Windy City Times: What was the procedure that resulted in you being CBA president?
Ray Koenig: I first became involved with the CBA when I was in law school, so last century. I've been involved in various committees or I've presented there. For the first five years, I was really more focused on the Illinois State Bar Association; I had a leadership position there and stayed there for a while.
As I was coming out of that, the then-executive director of the CBA, Terry Murphy, reached out to me and said, "I'd like you to get involved with the CBA. I think you'd make a good leader, so could you run for the board of managers?" This was back in 2014.
So I was on the board for two years but Terry Murphy, being Terry Murphy, said, "I want to keep you involved." We went to lunch and he said he had three or four ideas, asking, "Does any of them interest you?" And the one that did [involved] creating a leadership institute for attorneys with [relatively little] experience. So we formed a committee, which I chaired, and worked with stakeholders; we came up with the CBA Leadership Institute, which I also chaired.
From there, it was suggested that I run for an officer position. With the CBA, there are potentially six officers: secretary, treasurer, second vice president, first vice president, president and ex-officio [being a member by virtue of holding another position]. I was secretary; once those two years were up, I was nominated for second vice president. Once you're nominated for second, if you win (which I did), you automatically move up after the next two years to presidentand I did serve a year as first vice president. Next year, I'll be ex-officio.
WCT: Obviously, this is a historic development. Do you think becoming president says anything about CBA in terms of inclusion?
RK: So we're celebrating our 150 years and I'm the first openly gay president. There were probably gay presidents before me, but they did not live in a world where they could be open.
The CBA has been really intentional, over the last 25 years or so, about identifying leaders from diverse backgrounds. We've had the first women, African-American females, first Asian, first Latinaall the firsts. So it seems surprising that we're just getting to the first LGBTQ+ individual, but it's not because we've had so many other firsts. And there have been a ton of openly gay people on the board of managers over the years.
To me, if you look at me being the first openly gay president in a vacuum, it seems weird. But if you look at the long line of leaders, it just says that I'm yet another leader from a diverse background.
WCT: And what do you plan on achieving?
RK: World domination. I'm kidding. [Smiles]
A lot of people, when they become president of a professional organization like the CBA, have a project in mind. My goal is to make the CBA more inclusive, and to spread that kind of care throughout the legal profession.
The legal profession, in general, has become really good about identifying and hiring a diverse workforce. But we're losing people regarding retention, in part, because people with diverse backgrounds are not asked to have a seat at the table where decisions are being made. Instead, we [often] go to the people we're most comfortable withand when you have a lot of white men running the big legal institutions, you go to them. That's not to say that's bad, but it's not being particularly inclusive.
At Clark Hill, I encourage my partners and colleagues to be more inclusive when they're putting together teams, meeting potential clients or even going to charity events. Who are you invitingthe same three guys you're having lunch with every day? No. [Diversity] is a really good thing, for the firm and for you; you're going to make better decisions.
It sounds like a cliche but it's true: The more diverse a group is, the better the decisions will be. That's been my experience and it's a reality. Being a white guy with a nice smile has opened a lot of doors for me, and I get thatand I want to use that experience to bring other [diverse] people in.
Also, I'm frequently read as a straight guy. When I'm in a room, people say things that they normally wouldn't say if they knew I was gay. In my meeting remarks, I say "gay, gay, gay" all over the place. I don't want to shut down any voices; I want people to stop and think: If you wouldn't say something if I were in the room [knowing that I'm gay], why are you saying it at all?
My directive is diversity when selecting a panel or topics, or when forming a committee or presenting a seminar. Look around. If it's just you and your sorority, then … come on. It's really not that hard to be inclusive.
I've discovered that it can be a challenge for older colleagues to talk about diversity because there's some discomfort, as they've never talked about it. Or because, if they say the wrong thing, they're worried about offending someone. But I think the more inclusive we are, the less likely something like that would happen. If I can give them license for them to be more comfortable if I'm out, then I think it'll make it a little easier for them.
A lot of my peers want to do the right thing and make things better. They just frequently do the wrong thing by not doing anything.
WCT: Does the CBA ever issue press releases or responses to something like the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving LGBTQ+ issues [303 Creative LLC v. Elenis]?
RK: So, the CBA takes positions on pieces of legislation and we have committees that do that. We do not take positions on case [decisions] that are issued.
Sometimes, we [get involved] in federal law. I remember, way back when, I was on the board of managers when Illinois was working on marriage equality. I was very proud to be on the board at the time, when a position was issued in favor of marriage equality. It was a time when the lives of attorneys who were out were being impacted.
WCT: I know that, in another life, you were an legislative aide. Are you thinking about politics for yourself in the future?
WCT: Are you sure?
RK: Nope. [Smiles] I admire our elected civil servants, judges, alderpeople, senators, representativesand I really respect them. They're really hard-working. Some of the judgesand I'm friends with someare the most intelligent and dedicated civil servants I can imagine. That's true of a lot of legislatorsand one that sticks out is my friend, [former Illinois House Speaker] Greg Harris. He's literally changed the lives of millions of people.
That being said, I don't have any desire to do the fundraising that comes along with those jobs. I know it's different for judges, but the processes they go through to get elected or appointed are a lot. I like being involved in the process; I like falling in love with a candidate and helping that person get elected.
Also, I love my practice at Clark Hill and doing fiduciary probate litigation. I enjoy it, I like my clients and I like [my colleagues]. At the annual meeting, I said I have no desire to be a judge, either. If something happened where there was an opening and they thought I was the right person for it and I thought I was the right person for itwhich would take a big egothen I would consider it. But it's not something I'm seeking.
WCT: I'm going to ask you something I've asked a lot of people this year, from everyday individuals to people like Billy Porter and Chaz Bono: What is it like for you to be part of the LGBTQ+ community in today's America?
RK: I am living a life that little Raymond from blue-collar White Lake, Michigan never dreamed about. On one hand, I'm married to an amazing husband, Johnny; I have 13-year-old twins; I was just elected the first openly gay president of the CBA; and I live in a city that's been incredibly accepting, because I didn't grow up here.
Your question implies, to me, that we're under attackand that fact that it's happening is terrible. The fact that, recently, it was the [eighth] anniversary of the Obergefell decision and I read Justice Kennedy's words. Every year, what he wrote becomes more meaningful; this year, when I posted something about the anniversary, I said, "law of the landfor now." As we've seen in the last year or two, massive precedents have been overturned.
So it's an amazing time we live in when people like Billy Porter can be themselves. But the other side is, like, "Jesus! What the heck is happening?" It seems like it's two steps forward and one step backand we're in the one-step-back part right now. But I think that people who favor an exclusionary and divisive ideology are on their way out and they're breathing their last gasps.