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Pro Bono Hot List: Kirkland & Ellis: Marriage Equality's Roller-Coaster Ride

Jordan Heinz was sitting in his office at Kirkland & Ellis' downtown Chicago headquarters on Feb. 21 when U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman issued a ruling allowing same-sex couples in Cook County, Ill., to marry — months before Illinois' new marriage-equality law was to take effect.

He rushed to the Richard J. Daley Center, which houses the county clerk's marriage bureau.

"I saw the first couple get their marriage license, then the next one," said Heinz, a partner in the firm's intellectual property practice. "There were about 20 that afternoon who came in and got marriage licenses. Cool doesn't even begin to describe the kind of emotion I was feeling at that point."

Heinz and a pro bono team of Kirkland attorneys that included litigation partners Emily Nicklin and Amy Crawford by that point had spent close to five years working with the nonprofit Lambda Legal to secure marriage equality in Illinois. Still, they remained vigilant. Within weeks of that victory, Lambda and the Kirkland team turned their sights to Indiana and went on to defeat that state's same-sex marriage ban.

"They are just extraordinary lawyers and extraordinary people," said Camilla Taylor, who heads Lambda Legal's marriage-equality efforts. "Kirkland devoted countless hours to these issues, and they didn't shove this case off on junior associates."

During one four-day period in April, the Kirkland attorneys produced three separate 40-page memos, a complaint and other motions and declarations, Taylor said. Heinz alone has spent between 500 and 600 hours this year on the cases.

Lambda Legal essentially cold-called the firm in 2009 asking for help with its same-sex marriage advocacy in Illinois. Kirkland quickly signed on, but held off on suing as state lawmakers in 2010 passed legislation allowing civil unions. The legal team ­refocused its arguments and sued in state court in 2012, but the suit became moot in November 2013 when Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a marriage-equality bill.

The six-month gap before the same-sex marriage ban would end was too long for couples in which one partner was terminally ill, however, so Lambda Legal and Kirkland quickly filed several federal lawsuits with the goal of allowing gay couples to wed immediately. Within a week, a judge had cleared the way for terminally ill couples to marry, with Coleman's ruling allowing all Cook County gay couples to marry coming the following month.

In March, the Lambda Legal and Kirkland attorneys filed a federal suit challenging Indiana's ban on gay marriage and a judge struck it down in June. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decision on Sept. 4, and U.S. Supreme Court's Oct. 6 decision to not review marriage-equality cases from seven states cleared the way to the altar for gay couples in Indiana.

In addition to marriage-equality work, pro bono attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis in 2014 helped defend New Jersey's ban on so-called "gay conversion" therapy and fought efforts by Arizona and Kansas to compel the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to require proof of citizenship on voter registration forms.