Ray Koenig becomes first openly-gay Chicago Bar Association president

Sat. November 4, 2023 12:17 PM by Ross Forman

judge mary cay marubio and ray koenig

photo credit // chicago bar association

‘I am excited to be able to implement the theme for my bar year: inclusion,’ says Ray Koenig

Ray Koenig III is a pioneer as the new president of the Chicago Bar Association, in its 150th year with about 18,000 members of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals throughout the country but primarily based on the Chicago area.  

Koenig, 50, is the first openly gay man in the position, which is a 1-year term, though the commitment is much longer, many more years.

“It is a true honor to lead The Chicago Bar Association,” Koenig said. “I am pleased to have been elected to serve our approximately members.

“As the first openly gay man – and first out member of the LGBTQ+ community – to serve as CBA President, I am excited to be able to implement the theme for my bar year: inclusion. As I stated during my remarks at the June annual meeting after being sworn in as president, the legal profession has made—and continues to make—strong efforts to create a diverse workforce. Hiring folks from diverse backgrounds is only the first step on the way toward equity and true success. The second step is inclusion.

Inclusion in the legal profession is critically important.” For many reasons, he stressed:

- Diverse perspectives and improved outcomes: “The legal profession is responsible for interpreting and applying the law to a wide range of situations. Including a diverse group of lawyers with different life experiences at the decision-making table will lead to a richer and more nuanced understanding of legal issues.”

- Access to justice: “Inclusion in the legal profession can help marginalized communities understand and access the justice system in proactive ways. When people see lawyers who look like them and come from similar backgrounds, they may be more likely to seek out legal assistance when needed.”

- Professional development: “When lawyers are exposed to a diverse range of perspectives and experiences, they can learn and grow in their own careers.”

Koenig, who lives in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, is a first-generation college graduate and first-generation law school graduate. “Growing up in then-blue collar White Lake, Michigan, I do not think I knew a lawyer, let alone had any working knowledge of the legal profession,” he said. “I was raised by a single mother who worked her butt off as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service to raise two sons, mostly on her own, with family and community support as needed.”

He attended Michigan State University, then moved to Chicago to attend DePaul University College of Law.

Chicago has been Koenig’s home for 27 years.

He is now a member (partner) at Clark Hill PLC, an international law firm with over 25 offices throughout the U.S., Ireland and Mexico.  Koenig’s areas of practice since he was first licensed in 1999 have been trust, probate and guardianship controversies, and litigation. “Since joining Clark Hill in 2009, I have served in many leadership roles,” including co-chair of the firm’s PRIDE committee and, for almost three years now, co-leader of the firm’s global litigation practice group. 

“I am very proud of my active leadership role in the transformation of our firm’s culture to be more diverse and inclusive,”

Koenig said. “Some results of that work: most of our leadership identify as a member of a minority group in some way, five of our nine elected members of our executive committee are female, and two of those nine are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Inclusion ensures that everyone has access to the same opportunities and is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their background or individual differences.

When individuals and groups are excluded, they are denied the opportunity to participate fully in society, whether it is in the workplace, education, or the community. This can lead to feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and decreased productivity. It also deprives society generally and the profession specifically of talent, inspiration, and genius that we can ill afford to waste.  Inclusion makes all lawyers feel like they belong – because they do.”

Practicing inclusion is more important now than ever, he stressed:

- “We live in a time where many of the rights of so many minority community members are under threat due to a certain strand of exclusionary and divisive ideology;

 - We live in a time where the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that forbids colleges and universities from even considering some of our diverse backgrounds in their attempts to create more inclusive college campuses;

- We live in a time where the LGBTQ community is being threatened with the rollback of the advances our society has made toward full equality; and 

- We live in a time where our transgender community members are facing constant threats to their lives, let alone their livelihoods.

That’s why Koenig strongly stands that practicing inclusion can be a form of activism, a form of solidarity, a way for every person in the legal community to show that it has the backs of every member of the legal community, and a chance for everyone to show that others our backs – “that you are our ally in our continuing fight for true equality and equity,” he said.

“Overall, inclusion is essential for creating a just and equitable society where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

Koenig’s journey from an admittedly lost law student to a large law firm probate litigator and president of the CBA through hard work, period. “I’ll admit, my privilege as a white guy with a nice smile helped,” he said. “Still, though, it was unlikely that a young gay lawyer at a small firm in the late-1990s would (excel).”

But Koenig made it because of more senior and influential attorneys who practiced inclusion. “These attorneys, all of whom were CBA members, included me in meetings with existing clients, referral sources, potential clients, civic and bar leaders, etc.,” Koenig said. “They did not just hire me to make a more diverse workforce – they took the next step and invited me to a seat at the table. They included me in, as the musical Hamilton made famous, the ‘room where it happens.’  

“Those experiences provided opportunities for me to make the connections necessary to build the practice and network I enjoy today. This inclusion, in its truest sense, brought me invaluable understanding of how things work, how do I turn a connection into a lasting relationship? What questions do I ask to understand a client’s problem? How do I figure out how to staff a matter? These attorneys, now friends, included me in what they did, so I could learn. Inclusion is so much more than part of an acronym to me.”

Koenig now presides over meetings of their board of managers and its executive committee. He also appoints all chairs and vice-chairs of all committees. “I can and have created ad hoc committees to address various issues facing the legal profession, such as best practices for remote, in person, and hybrid court appearances and workspaces,” he said. “Most importantly, I am the face of the CBA and, to some extent, of the Chicago legal community for my bar year.  The CBA has an amazing professional staff led by our incomparable executive director Beth McMeen, so I can focus on big picture items and not sweat the day-to-day stuff.”

Koenig said being named CBA president represents an achievement he never dreamed possible as a kid from a blue-collar family. “When I was a young lawyer, one of the partners in my firm was CBA president,” he said. “I never thought that I would ever fill the same role, nor did I even consider it possible. I was just trying to figure out how to pay my student loans and become a lawyer. The achievement truly feels like validation for years of hard work and capitalizing on various opportunities.

“It is also a reflection of my great privilege as well as my good fortune. I keep that in mind to keep me grounded, humble, and to continue to help those who are just embarking on their legal careers, whether as law students, or new attorneys. For these reasons, I give back as much as possible to aspiring and young lawyers. I was helped by so many – I try to always do the same.

“Next, it means I am busier than I have ever been. It sometimes feels like I have four full-time jobs between my practice as a lawyer, my firm leadership roles, my community leadership roles, and now, the CBA presidency. I just keep adding time to my day to fit it all in, knowing how fortunate I am to have so many great opportunities.

“Finally, it makes me more grateful than ever to have married an amazing husband, Johnny Song. He holds everything together for our family, our twin daughters, their busy lives, and me. We are far from perfect, but the foundation we built since 2004 has allowed us to make it through most things with grace, smiles, and gratitude, though sometimes attitude.”

Koenig said it is “mind-blowing” that he is the first openly LGBTQ individual to serve in this role. “I am one in a long line of presidents from diverse backgrounds selected by CBA membership over the last 30 years,” he said. “The CBA has worked tirelessly to make sure our leadership has been representative of the attorneys – and communities – we serve. Those attorneys and communities are remarkably diverse, and our leadership has represented many of them. While now is the time for a leader from the LGBTQ community, we still have many communities which have not yet been represented by our leadership, and I look forward to seeing our leadership continue to evolve to amplify those diverse voices. 

“This is a significant milestone because it marks a step forward in promoting diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ+ rights in the legal profession.

“I can see a few implications of this milestone. First, I am a visible representation of the LGBTQA+ community in the legal profession. This is hopefully empowering for other LGBTQA+ individuals who may feel inspired to be open about their own identities. Next, breaking this barrier may challenge stereotypes and prejudices that have existed within the legal profession, leading to more inclusive practices and policies.  In addition, it gives me the opportunity to advocate for LGBTQA+ rights and inclusion, both within the legal profession and in my broader community. Finally, and unfortunately, it may also come with some challenges, such as dealing with discrimination, stereotypes, or biases. I feel a responsibility to navigate these challenges and create a more inclusive environment for other LGBTQA+ professionals.”

Koenig said his short-term goal as CBA president is to make inclusion an ingrained part of everything the CBA and its 18,000 members do. “We also need to maintain membership by continuing to provide amazing benefits for people in the legal profession to join and stay with us,” he said. “Long-term, I want to make sure the CBA remains a relevant, valuable resource for Chicago-area legal professionals no matter their area of practice, place of employment, or professional role. Second, continue to be an advocate for and defender of legal professionals, including the judiciary.”

Koenig added, “I would like to acknowledge the many members of the Chicago LGBTQ legal community who have held me up and pushed me forward, including Judge Mary Cay Marubio, Laura Ricketts, Dan Kirk, John Litchfield, and my bar association event wingman, Adam Zebelian, among many others.”