As leader of Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s Project Affirmation — a name-change and gender-marker amendment clinic — Mary Olson is a well-known and active ally for the transgender community in and around Kansas City.
Working for the pro bono clinic, Olson has represented and counseled hundreds of adult and minor trans clients. She’s helped them to obtain accurate government-issued identification documents with work that has included litigating before hostile judges and negotiating with counsel for state vital records offices throughout the country.
Olson’s pro bono practice entails navigating often undefined — and at times nonexistent — state laws to combat discrimination against transgender people. She also trains other advocates by presenting CLEs for the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association.Advocating for the trans community is her favorite thing to do as a lawyer, she said, and her greatest honor.
Who has most inspired you in your work for Diversity & Inclusion, and why?
The first is my close friend, Alex Garnick, who turned me onto advocating for the trans community . . . The second is one of my first few clients, a young transman, who stood his ground when the judge presiding over his case asked him to confirm that he was “anatomically a female” and that allowing him to change his name to one “typically associated with the male gender” would make him a danger to society. If a high school kid has the courage to stand against discrimination wherever and whenever it may be found, what’s my excuse?
What goal remains unfulfilled for you as an attorney and advocate for Diversity & Inclusion?
So. Many. Goals. As it relates to my pro bono practice, we need to see every state allowing individuals to amend the gender markers recorded on their birth certificates to accurately reflect their gender identities, through processes that are accessible to all. Persons born in Ohio and Tennessee remain unable to amend the gender markers recorded on their birth certificates, and — as to the states that do allow for gender-marker amendments — many require a surgical procedure, and most do not recognize a non-binary gender marker.
What must Missouri’s legal community do to promote meaningful and long-term diversity within its legal/justice system?
The legal community must be proactive. In this moment, firms, businesses and individuals are showing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. The legal community is reacting to George Floyd’s murder, firms are rethinking their diversity and inclusion efforts, and lawyers on both sides of the “v.” are calling for more sunshine on the justice system as a whole. Imagine a world with a proactive legal community, one that kept the conversation front and center as opposed to picking it up every so often when police killings of BIPOC and instances of gross oppression and injustice in the legal system gain publicity. A few things those of us in law firms could focus on include not only hiring diverse employees, but retaining and promoting them to ensure a diverse leadership through which all are represented; fostering honest and critical discussion regarding where firm diversity & inclusion metrics are at — and why — and what must be done to get them where they need to be; implementing mandatory and meaningful diversity, inclusion and bias training; and making sure that formal diversity & inclusion efforts are accompanied by informal inclusion, because a lack of organic inclusion is tantamount to exclusion.