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story & photos by Tricia Dewey (she/her)

Josh Wallis did not come to the legal profession immediately after college, but he did turn to it eventually, as many do, to help make a difference. He says, “You think that it can be life-changing not only for yourself but for the people that you are helping. But I think most people go into it with an altruistic intent. And I guess I would count myself in that group as well.”

A Memphian for most of his life, Wallis graduated from Kirby High School, and went on to major in theater at the University of Memphis, where he was in local productions of Sweeney Todd, Once On This Island, and Taming of the Shrew. Following graduation, Wallis worked
for a theater company in the Northeast performing plays in schools. Although he enjoyed performing, he did not love the instability of the acting life that requires continuous auditioning. He returned to Memphis in 2002, had a few other wide-ranging jobs, and ultimately decided to apply to University of Memphis Law School. As a theater major, he had learned that anything is possible.

He loved his time at U of M Law. He says he still has many friends and colleagues with whom he keeps in contact. While there, he helped to found the group Outlaw, which is a student organization and a social outlet for LGBTQ individuals. There were not very many out people in his class, Wallis says, but about 10 or 15 people met in this group.

After graduating in 2009, Wallis eventually settled into family law with The Landers Firm and that’s where his focus remains. Like any other practice area, it has some amazing benefits like getting to know clients in a more personal way, and of course its downfalls, one of which he says is seeing good people at some of their worst times. With the pandemic, “[divorce practice] seems to be a bit busier right now. January is always a busy time for divorces to be filed. Just in general people tend to wait until after the holidays to take any sort of action.”

Wallis has been on the executive board for the LGBTQ section for the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) since 2018, but he realized that the Memphis Bar Association (MBA) did not have a similar group. Wallis thinks an LGBTQ section of the MBA would be a welcome and necessary addition. In fact, it is probably past time to help more in Memphis to see representation of the LGBTQ community and to help them understand the need for diversity.

In June 2020, the Tennessee Bar Association’s LGBTQ section held a successful Continuing Legal Education (CLE) commemorating and examining the landmark Obergefell decision. Five years after Obergefell guaranteed marriage rights for all Americans, Regina Lambert Hillman (Assistant Professor at U of M Law) and Maureen Holland (Memphis attorney) helped to organize the zoom conference that hosted some presenters from the legal team that took the case to the Supreme Court.

Wallis says his work on the executive council for the Tennessee Bar Association inspired his hopes for a Memphis Bar Association LGBTQ section. Ideas for the MBA section include presenting CLEs and participating in Pride events, including, for example, providing legal education and name change forms specific to LGBTQ individuals, and partnering with OUTMemphis and other organizations.

Offering a CLE would be the largest component of the work, but Wallis wants to have community involvement as well. He wants to see LGBTQ representation in the legal community, but also provide the legal community with exposure to the LGBTQ community. “I really see it as a way to help both. I’d like to find ways to partner with people.” He expects others who will eventually become the board and officers of the section to bring more good ideas about its work to the table.

Wallis was a theater major in college. He loved performing, but didn’t like the instability of the profession. He entered the University of Memphis law program. While enrolled, he founded Outlaw, a student social organization for LGBTQ individuals, though few LGBTQ students, he said, were out at that time.

Wallis also sees the need to develop a list of attorneys who are gay and gay-friendly allies. “I also want attorneys to be involved in the LGBTQ community so that there’s a mutual outreach there. I see great possibility of what that can do for our community and I’m hoping that others see that as well.”

Response to Wallis’ Facebook post gauging interest in formation of an LGBTQ section generated a lot of interest. Wallis says a subsequent group discussion was a positive start and he is now in the process of drafting the bylaws for the section, comparing notes with people involved, and planning to request approval from the board of the Memphis Bar Association to officially form a section. The statement of purpose will be similar to that of the LGBTQ Tennessee Bar section: to enhance the status of and provide opportunities to LGBT attorneys and their allies. He hopes for final approval of the section by early March if not sooner.

The Memphis Bar Association has been encouraging so far, and lately has really focused
on diversity issues, Wallis says. “We have a diversity committee created and are trying to be aware of diversity and racial bias and all those issues that are at the forefront right now in the media. So I think it’s a really good opportunity to bring all of those elements together.”

An LGBTQ presence as a formal section of the Memphis Bar Association may be the catalyst to something even better than he can imagine. Wallis hopes “just the exposure of having the group creates a conversation that needs to occur. I look forward to seeing what can come.”

Ultimately, Wallis “want[s] the legal community to support it and to be actively involved and to get out there. There are so many attorneys who are in the LGBTQ community who have organizations that they support on a one-on-one basis. What would happen if we could all be involved in that or if we all had a voice for legislation that’s being passed that negatively affects the LGBTQ community? What would happen if West Tennessee has that voice in the Tennessee legislature in some way?” The possibilities are diverse.