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Jill Jacobson, the first and only openly gay partner at the national trial law firm Bowman and Brooke, believes being an attorney in Virginia, where she works out of the Richmond office, is as much a calling as it is a career. Headquartered in Minneapolis with five additional offices nationwide, Bowman and Brooke is known for defending Fortune 500 manufacturers in commercial litigation and product liability cases, as in a 2006 case in which Ford was acquitted of liability in a fatal SUV rollover accident. The office's Southern environs meant that coming out at work would be risky, but Jacobson says the firm has been very supportive. "Being a lesbian and being out, particularly among what are traditionally conservative colleagues at a conservative law firm, I know that sometimes things won't go the way that I want," Jacobson says. "But the fact is I'm out and I succeed, which I think has to do with the fact that I'm a damn good lawyer."
Jacobson, 42, was raised in Cupertino, Calif., at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Ask her about her years at San Jose State University, where she studied business, marketing, and advertising, and she's quick to volunteer that she was captain of her school's women's field hockey team and that she sold copy machines for 18 months after graduating.
What she doesn't cop to immediately is that for two years in college she was active in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association and competed as a bareback bronco-rider. She easily reconciles her stint as a rodeo star with her legal career. "In the rodeo I had to face tough and difficult situations, and this has informed so many areas of my life," she says. "As a trial lawyer, I stand in front of juries telling stories. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but you know you've got to get back on that horse and ride again."
After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1993, Jacobson worked at firms in California and Texas before deciding to return to Virginia in 1999. She came in as a partner at Bowman and Brown in February 2007. Although the state doesn't seem very gay-friendly--in 2004 the legislature passed a law prohibiting any legal recognition for same-sex couples, including civil unions, and in 2006 voters approved a constitutional amendment that confers legal standing to heterosexual marriages only--Jacobson says her Virginia experience has been different.
"This firm is a firm of inclusion. They have a wonderful diversity philosophy, and they've embraced me," she says, noting that since Bowman and Brooke procures insurance through its Minnesota headquarters, it can offer domestic-partner benefits to its Virginia employees. (Virginia-based employers are barred from contracting with insurers for domestic-partner benefits, although they can self-insure to provide benefits.)
In her life outside work, Jacobson and her partner, Jennifer Jakubecy, 34, with whom she has one child (with a second due in June), have felt nothing but welcome, whether by the contractor they hired to build their home, or by the fertility and obstetrics specialists they've consulted, or by the proprietors of the bed-and-breakfast at which they held their commitment ceremony. "It's clear to people that we're a family, and we've never had any kind of problems," Jacobson says. "We've talked about leaving Virginia but never seriously."
It's not common for gay men and lesbians to choose to be a corporate defense attorney, she adds. Most of her friends who are gay and practice law represent injured individuals or specialize in civil rights law or family law. But while Jacobson does her share of pro bono work, and partners with organizations that work to gain financial independence for women, she is most comfortable, perhaps even at her best, in front of a jury. "This is a niche area of the law that is very conservative," she says. "I know a lot of people who don't think they can come out. So I know what a big deal it is for me to be out in this kind of environment."