Biglaw, Conferences / Symposia, Gay, In-House Counsel, Minority Issues

From the Lavender Law Conference: Coming Out in the Profession

Lavender Law National LGBT Bar Association conference.jpgWe’re having a pretty gay Monday here at Above the Law. Earlier today, we discussed which top law firms won recognition from the Human Rights Campaign for being LGBT-friendly.
Perhaps we’ll still recovering from the weekend. As we mentioned before, we spent part of it attending the excellent Lavender Law conference, over in Brooklyn (just a short subway ride away from the ATL offices in Soho). In case you’re not familiar with the conference, here’s some background:

Every year, the sharpest legal minds in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community gather at the National LGBT Bar Association’s annual conference and career fair.

Hundreds of practicing attorneys, dozens of scholars, over 500 students and many leading members of the judiciary are expected to attend over the course of this year’s events.

We moderated a panel on Saturday, focused on federal courts and LGBT equality, and we attended several other panels and workshops. We’ll be writing a bit about the conference proceedings.
Our first conference write-up — discussing the workshop Coming Out in the Profession: “But What Will the Clients Think?”, which may interest young LGBT attorneys — appears after the jump.

The panel featured the following participants:

  • Laura Maechtlen (moderator): Seyfarth Shaw; president of National LGBT Bar Association
  • Mike Gallion: partner at Seyfarth Shaw (LA); labor and employment defense
  • Michelle Peak: in-house at American Airlines (labor and employment)
  • Corey Reese: in-house at Estee Lauder (corporate); formerly at Cleary Gottlieb.
  • John Trevino: in-house at American Airlines (litigation)
    Here’s what they discussed. Please note that this is far from a verbatim transcript of the conversation; it’s just our informal summary of the highlights of what was said. The questions came from moderator Laura Maechtlen and from the audience.
    What is it like being out at work?
    Gallion: I came out because it was important for me to be honest with my colleagues. Also, I market to the LGBT community.
    Reese: At Estee Lauder, I wanted to be honest about who I am and have open discussions about my life. Plus, I work for a beauty company. [Laughter.] That said, it’s a personal choice; some people are out at Estee Lauder, and others aren’t.
    Trevino: I was at a conservative firm in Houston before I was in-house, and I was in the military before that. I lived a double life in the military and also at the firm. The firm was not a good environment for gay people; offensive jokes were made at the firm retreat. I decided to leave the firm and wanted to go to a place committed to diversity and LGBT issues.
    Gallion: I started at a regional law school in Tennessee, almost two years there. My experience was similar to what John Trevino described — a conservative environment, water cooler jokes. At Seyfarth, the environment is very supportive.
    Reese: as in-house lawyers, our “clients” are the business-side people. At the company, many of the top brass are straight white men, but people are very understanding. I’ll mention my being gay if it comes up naturally in conversation.
    Trevino: I have a picture of my partner in my office; it’s not a problem.
    Gallion: I open up slowly to clients — I do it over time, in casual conversation. I don’t do it immediately. I want to feel comfortable with a client first. I’ve had pretty much universally positive reactions.
    There are some differences. I might not play golf with my clients; I might take them to a Beyonce concert. The marketing aspect is different.
    Could “coming out” be inappropriate or improper under certain circumstances?
    Trevino: It depends on context. For example, if we’re discussing a motion for summary judgment, you shouldn’t blurt out, “I’m a lesbian.”
    It can be a plus — there is networking within the LGBT community. It can help LGBT outside counsel move up in the ranks if they have good relationships with clients.
    Peak: With sexual orientation, you can’t always assume it based on appearance. I don’t make assumptions about outside counsel I work with, for example. But I might mention my partner because I don’t want my clients to feel that their being gay could be a problem.
    Gallion: I sometimes wait for cues like that from clients before coming out.
    How early should one come out?
    Peak: It’s a personal decision. I’m there to do a job. My grandmother counseled me not to be out (and repeatedly tried to set me up with her banker; I had to remind her I’m a lesbian [laughter]). I had to get comfortable in my surroundings before coming out. I was at American Airlines for a few years before coming out.
    Trevino: It’s partly a generational thing. Younger lawyers tend to be more open. They’ll ask in interviews about domestic partner benefits. When I graduated law school, I was terrified about being out. I felt, early on, that I had to “pass” or “cover” until I established myself professionally.
    Reese: I took a more aggressive stance: if you have a problem with my sexuality, then I don’t want to work for you.
    Trevino: You should feel free to ask about LGBT issues when you interview because you don’t want to go a place where it would be a problem. At our company, we are trying to get the outside law firms we work with to disclose information about their LGBT policies and diversity numbers.
    You seem to work in environments where people are supportive. What about less friendly environments and how to deal with them? And in this economy, do you want anything out there that could be a problem for a potential employer?
    Reese: On the one hand, you don’t want to alienate people. On the other hand, you want to work at a place that values you as a person.
    Trevino: Make yourself valuable to the firm, so the focus is on your work. Continue to build relationships. Network with potential clients. These are businesses; if you can bring them business, they will value you.
    Peak: Some corporate clients are starting to ask about how their outside law firms deal with diversity issues.
    What can we do to advance LGBT diversity in the profession?
    Reese: At our company, when reorganizing our list of outside counsel, we requested that firms provide us with information about diversity. It was in our request for proposals. We put that pressure on outside firms.
    Peak: We take note of which law firms are sponsoring LGBT-focused events and conferences, like Lavender Law. That’s a positive for us.
    What should you do if you’re an associate at a law firm and a client of the firm makes inappropriate comments at a meeting?
    Gallion: Talk to the partner you’re working with and discuss the situation. If I were in the shoes of that partner, I would talk to the client. Sometimes it’s necessary to have tough conversations with clients. Of course, you need to frame it the right way when speaking with the client.
    Reese: If outside counsel disrespected us, as in-house lawyers, we as the client would raise the issue with the relationship partner. If someone within the company said something inappropriate to me, it becomes more of an HR issue, and there is a process for that.
    Coming Out in the Profession: “But, What Will the Clients Think?” [Lavender Law / National LGBT Bar Association]
    Earlier: Biglaw Is Good to Gays

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