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

Being Out In-House: The LGBT Lawyer Experience in Corporate America

Yesterday I participated in a panel at the Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), entitled “Attitudes & Opinions: Generation Y Speaks about their Workplace in 10 Years.” The spirited discussion covered a wide range of topics relating to Gen Y’s workplace attitudes.

I also attended a number of other interesting events. In the afternoon, I checked out “Special Considerations: The In-House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Lawyer Experience.”

If you’re interested in LGBT issues or in-house diversity issues, keep reading to find out what the panelists had to say….

Here’s the panel description:

This session is designed to help you learn whether there are issues facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender attorneys in corporate legal departments that are unique. The panel will cover the perceptions and experiences of LGBT attorneys in corporate legal departments; the impact of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression on the professional development, opportunities, and career progression of LGBT attorneys in corporate legal departments; and how corporate legal departments can create and maintain inclusive environments that ensure equal opportunities for the success of LGBT attorneys. You will walk away knowing how your corporate legal department can create a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender friendly workplace today.

And the panelists:

  • Lisa A. Linsky, Partner, McDermott Will & Emery LLP
  • Michael F. Colosi, Senior Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.
  • Nancy J. Di Dia, Executive Director & Chief Diversity Officer, Boehringer Ingelheim USA
  • Andrew S. Hamano, Senior Counsel, Western Region & North America, The Nature Conservancy Western Resource Office
  • Michelle A. Peak, Senior Attorney, American Airlines Inc.

Lisa Linsky moderated (looking fabulous in a bright red suit). As you may recall, Linsky was one of several lawyers who made the New York Observer’s list of Power Gays, coming in at #28.

The discussion started with this question: Why LGBT diversity? Are there unique issues in this context? Why does this matter?

Nancy Di Dia noted that we tend to think of diversity in terms of race and gender. Other forms of diversity, such as LGBT and disability diversity, are often overlooked — and this is unfortunate. As Di Dia pointed out, the customers of her company — Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharmaceutical manufacturer — are diverse, in many different ways; the company’s employees should be too.

Michelle Peak echoed these remarks, making the business case for diversity. Her employer, American Airlines, actively markets to LGBT travelers — a sizable demographic that exhibits significant brand loyalty. (She also joked that LGBT travelers generate a lot of revenue in baggage fees.)

Accepting that LGBT diversity matters, what can companies do to be welcoming to their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender employees? This is actually not as easy as it used to be, given that many companies have already taken the obvious steps — e.g., health benefits for domestic partners, the “gay gross-up” (aka the tax offset for domestic partner health benefits), and other factors that get taken into account by the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.

Companies should, of course, take additional steps to support LGBT employees and the LGBT community. Several panelists mentioned, for example, sponsoring tables at the major fundraising events of gay rights organizations.

Michael Colosi of Kenneth Cole highlighted one interesting (and tricky) issue: being sensitive to the concerns of LGBT employees when making international assignments. Many major corporations have operations all over the world, but not all countries are as welcoming of LGBT individuals as the United States. This can raise issues of cultural comfort or even personal safety for LGBT employees assigned to overseas posts.

An audience member raised another challenge: How should employers, including law firms, deal with of closeted employees? The questioner seemed to suggest that having openly gay individuals in positions of leadership can send a powerful positive message to LGBT employees — but some of these high-ranking people, including senior partners at firms, do not wish to identify as gay.

The panelists, including Di Dia and Hamano, seemed to agree that everyone has to handle the “coming out” process on his or her own time. In other words, employees should not be forced out of the closet.

That said, employers can take steps to create supportive environments, so that LGBT employees who are thinking of coming out will feel comfortable doing so. For example, according to Di Dia, Boehringer Ingelheim circulated a video during Gay and Lesbian Pride Month urging employees to be their authentic selves. (The video, short on production values but long on charm, was screened at the end of the panel.)

At McDermott Will & Emery, according to Linsky, the firm circulates a voluntary in-house survey asking about sexual orientation. It’s entirely voluntary, and some LGBT lawyers at MWE choose not to self-identify (and even call Linsky to tell her they won’t self-identify).

But the very act of sending around the survey sends the right message. And that is, at the end of the day, a big part of what employers can and should do for their LGBT employees.

MCCA’s 12th Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference [Cvent]

Earlier: The Power Gays Of New York

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