A work environment that welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lawyers is not only fundamentally fair, it can boost the bottom line.
That was the message of Out in Law, a daylong event at New York University School of Law this month that brought together LGBT lawyers and their allies from 18 New York law firms to talk about promoting an LGBT-friendly culture that could be leveraged in recruitment efforts, business relationships and client development.
The networking event attracted more than 200 attorneys, most of whom were either partners or managing partners representing their firms. That show of support from the top exemplified a new attitude toward LGBT em-ployees that gay lawyers said would have been unheard of years ago.
“If you’d asked me when I first started my career, I’d have said never,” said Roberta Kaplan, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who successfully argued for the repeal of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act before the U.S. Supreme Court last June. “If you’d asked me last year, I wouldn’t have been so surprised.”
“What’s different about this event is getting so many senior-level people to come,” said Paul Smith, a partner at Jenner & Block, who argued the landmark gay rights case Lawrence v. Texas 539 U.S. 558 (2003). “It’s a different crowd and creates a kind of synergy we haven’t seen before.”
Out in Law was organized by Out Leadership, a workplace-equality group created by diversity consultant Todd Sears. A former investment banker, Sears has organized similar conferences for the financial services industry since 2011, bringing together dozens of CEOs and senior-level executives to discuss LGBT issues on Wall Street.
The March 13 event was the first focused on the legal profession.
Sears said he’s targeting major industries such as law, finance and insurance because most already have LGBT-friendly policies such as antidiscrimination protections and health coverage for same-sex spouses.
But the goal of Out Leadership, Sears said, is to coax employers to move beyond policy and actively recruit from the LGBT community, as well as ensure their LGBT employees feel comfortable mentioning their sexual orientations at work.
“We focus too much on the negatives, like discrimination,” Sears said. “What we really need to look at is: how do our policies look from the client perspective and from a talent development perspective?”
Impact on Firm Business
Several Wall Street business leaders shared their insights on how LGBT friendliness can be a revenue booster.
“From a business case, whether we’re doing a transaction together as lawyer and banker or I’m doing a leveraged buyout for a private equity client, our personal lives do come into the mix,” said Mark Stephanz, vice chairman at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “By keeping these dynamics out of the equation, I think we’re missing out on important potential connections, whether personal or business.”
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who has been a public LGBT supporter, echoed that sentiment. “At the core, the business case is really about recruiting talent,” he said. “And in the past, we have been the beneficiary of other people’s discrimination.”
Touching on employee retention, Sharon Nelles, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, stressed the importance of LGBT lawyers making their sexual orientations known from early in their careers.
Self-identifying as LGBT creates mentorship opportunities with other LGBT lawyers, she said. From a firm management perspective, a healthy environment for LGBT employees helps develop potential future leaders and prevents attrition, she said.
“If people are self-identifying at the point of success, it’s too late,” Nelles said. “We as a law firm recognize that if you’re not at the table, you’re not getting lunch. So we need to make sure we are feeding the populations that are going to lead our law firm in the future.”
About 2.2 percent of lawyers employed by U.S. law firms are openly LGBT, according to data released in January by the National Association for Law Placement. Many choose not to identify themselves due to privacy concerns. Some panelists estimated that at least a quarter of lawyers remain “in the closet” at work.
Still, it’s important for law firms to collect that data to help them create stronger policies for LGBT employees, said Rene Johnson, a labor and employment partner with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. In addition, LGBT statistics are becoming fair game for in-house legal departments to request from their outside counsel.
“If they’re not asking for it already, I suspect they will in the future,” she said.
Johnson said firms should treat statistics on LGBT employees the same way as statistics on race and gender: collect the data, but don’t tie it to employees’ identities or share it with hiring managers. Firms with global offices should create country-specific diversity questionnaires so they comply with privacy laws and political sensitivities around LGBT people in each jurisdiction, she said.
‘Coming Out’ At Work
Throughout the event, attendees and panelists shared their personal “coming out at work” stories. Southern District Judge Alison Nathan (See Profile) said she included her membership in LGBT groups on her resume from the time she graduated from law school in 2000. Others, such as Wade Leak, deputy general counsel of Sony Music Entertainment, waited until well into their careers to reveal their sexual orientations within their professional circles.
The next generation of lawyers, may not face the same kind of coming-out conundrum. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, while 21 states along with D.C. have laws in place protecting employees against workplace discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Out in Law participating firms were Baker & Hostetler; Buckley Sandler; Cahill Gordon & Reindel; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Covington & Burling; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Jenner & Block; Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel; Latham & Watkins; McDermott Will & Emery; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Paul Weiss; Ropes & Gray; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Sullivan & Cromwell; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.