Growing up, Jon Olafson first knew he wanted to be lawyer as he watched state after state pass constitutional measures and statutes marginalizing the LGBTQ community. Though Olafson was not out at this time, it was terrifying for him to know that his community was being marginalized. “How do you protect yourself? Do you fight fire with fire? You feel powerless.”
Olafson also found that a career in the law was an excellent fit for him because he “likes to find solutions to problems and to look at what can we do to make things better.” He finds the interaction with not only clients, but also other attorneys to be the most fulfilling aspect of his work. He enjoys working in the greater community to better our community. “You can make the world a better place, especially with a team. It’s really exciting.”
The fact that the right answer is not always easy to get to is what Olafson finds most challenging about the law. “Sometimes the right solution takes more work than you think. Doing right should be as easy as doing wrong, but I’m not always sure it is.” He also admits that there are not enough hours in the day and finding time for self-care is hard.
In his practice as a member of the Labor and Employment Practice at Lewis Brisbois, Olafson counsels employers on best practices. “It’s about being proactive and more compliant with the law.” Even after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County protecting employment rights for the LGBTQ community, Olafson still hears about people being fired, bullied, and professionals not being comfortable coming out at work. As of January 1, Olafson was promoted to administrative partner with his firm, working on ways of being more inclusive. Olafson calls inclusion and allyship a “super power.” “If you see something, you may have power to help someone.” He and Angie Ioannou started an LGTBQ affinity group for their national firm, finding ways to be a more LGBTQ-affirming workplace. Their work has the potential to impact thousands of attorneys over 54 offices. Olafson is quick to note that the work is far from done. “After the Court’s decision in Dobbs, all equality is at risk.”
As a young lawyer, Olafson never had a role model who was a gay man. There were not a lot of openly gay men in the law, and the television show “Will and Grace” was the first time he saw a gay male in the law. Olafson is now trying to create that space. The LGTBQ community is still coming up and “might get kicked down,” so Olafson is trying to fix the lack of role models and people to light that path. Olafson also says that he has always looked up to CWBA Past President Jessica Brown because of her work both in her practice and in the community.
In 2021, Olafson was deeply honored to be awarded the Attorney of the Year Award from the Colorado LGBT Bar Association. This year, he also received the Daniel H. Benson Public Service Award from his alma mater, Texas Tech University Law School. However, what he finds most meaningful is when he works on a project and someone individually comes to him and says thank you for his work. Once, after a speaking engagement, a mother came up to him crying and said that her child had just come out the day before and she was looking for a way to be a better mother. “Those are the moments that stay with you.”
Olafson has been instrumental in the Colorado Bar Association’s diversity and inclusion efforts, serving on Group IV (Accountability: Transparency, Measuring & Reporting Progress) of the CBA’s Diversity Initiatives and chairing the Racial Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (REDI) Committee, which he founded. He says that his work comes down to belonging and creating space for people to be authentically themselves. “Everyone is different. If we cannot express that, it is marginalizing and defeating.” Through his work, Olafson is trying to foster conversations. Olafson loves CWBA President Kathryn Starnella’s theme, “You Uniquely Belong,” and echoes that sentiment.
Olafson first became involved with the CWBA when, as part of his work with REDI Committee, CBA President Joi Kush assigned leaders to an affinity bar. Kush challenged him to try something different and join the CWBA. Olafson had to break out of his comfort zone in his participation. At first, he did know if this was for him, and he didn’t want to take up space. With encouragement and mentorship from CWBA President Starnella, Olafson decided to jump in and see what he could do. Olafson found that he has been welcomed and has been asked to use his voice. He found ways to be an ally to all women. For other men who may be considering joining the CWBA, Olafson says, “Jump in. You will find a community in which you will learn and grow in ways you didn’t know and learn how to deepen your allyship.”
Olafson says that On What Grounds is his favorite part of any month because the conversations are real and vulnerable. “When you have people sharing their perspectives, understanding will happen.” Every month, the discussion causes him to stop and think about who he is and what he’s doing. This is also Olafson’s second year serving on the Convention Committee, which he describes as, “just a good time.”
When asked what advice he would have for those who want to be allies, Olafson says to stop and listen to what people are saying and what they need. “Ask how you can help and join the cause.” Olafson describes two levels of allyship: An ally has your back. An ally+ is listening, responding, and having tools to go out and show up and do. The first critical step is listening, researching on your own, and learning what you didn’t learn in school about marginalized communities. “Give yourself space to learn and grow.” Olafson presents a CLE on this topic and was scheduled to speak at the CWBA convention in May but was unable to attend because of getting COVID. Plans are in the works to reschedule the program, so stay tuned!
In addition to his work with the CBA and CWBA, Olafson has also spearheaded the efforts of the Denver Philharmonic. He is now president emeritus after nine years as president of the board. Olafson first became involved because he wanted to find way to give back to the community. “No matter a person’s background, music can connect people.” Olafson is proud of the work they did removing barriers to classical music. Under his tenure, they revised the dress code and etiquette, removing the mystique around classical music and making it a place for everyone. The Denver Philharmonic decided they would adapt so that a more diverse audience would come and listen to live music. They added more contemporary composers and diverse composers so people would feel connected. “It’s exciting work.”
On an amusing side note, as a fundraiser before their first trip to Munich to perform with their sister orchestra, the Bavarian Philharmonic Orchestra in Munich, Germany, Olafson and two other Denver Philharmonic board members challenged the audience that in exchange for reaching a goal of $1,500, the three would play Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s second movement, in front of Mozart’s birth house in Salzburg, Austria. When that goal was met, they agreed to wear white wigs if a second goal of $2,000 was met. In the end, the $2,000 goal was exceeded, and the trio drove to Salzburg to play, an event that was recorded on video (https://denverphilharmonic.org/middle-school-band-dropouts/). Olafson played the oboe for the first time since high school, and all three donned wigs. They later reprised the performance for Colorado Gives Days at a March concert in front of 1,200 people in Denver.
Outside of the law, Olafson and his partner, Jerry, like paddle boarding, hanging out with Jerry’s kids, making dinner, and finding ways to volunteer in the community. Jerry still volunteers with Denver Philharmonic, and Olafson now enjoys supporting him. Olafson is also president of the Nathan Yip Foundation, working with rural schools and communities, and serves on the Opera Colorado Board, where he also sits on the Opera’s EDI Committee.
Kate Noble is a CWBA Publications Committee member and a legal editor with Colorado Bar Association CLE, the nonprofit educational arm of the Colorado and Denver Bar Associations.