When Keith Wetmore was featured in a cover story for California Lawyer in 1992 the publication was flooded with a stream of hate mail with angry lawyers calling the piece “repulsive” and “sick.”
Readers were upset because Wetmore, who is gay, had been profiled alongside several other gay and lesbian Big Law attorneys in a story called “Gays at Law: Life in a Straight-Laced Profession.”
Wetmore says he has seen major change since then. In 2000, he became the first openly gay AmLaw100 chairman, leading Morrison & Foerster for 12 years. He’s now a managing director with legal executive search firm Major, Lindsey and Africa in San Francisco where he helps attorneys, including those who identify as LGBTQ, find the right law firm role.
Over the past 25 years, American public acceptance of LGBTQ individuals has grown, at least in some quarters. But LGBTQ people still face plenty of barriers in the legal industry that include choosing the right firm, office and practice group.
An estimated 4.5 percent of the adult U.S. population identify as LGBT, according to Gallup. Some advocates believe the figure is actually higher, as self-reporting of LGBTQ status can be limited by stigma and social pressure. When Gallup began collecting tracking data in 2012, only 3.5 percent of Americans self-identified as LGBT.
The numbers are lower in law firms. According to the most recent diversity report by the National Association for Law Placement, approximately 2.9% of all attorneys in the U.S. identify as LGBT. Large firms and boutiques have more associates and partners who identify as LGBT than mid-sized firms (with 100-250 lawyers), according to the report.
“One challenge LGBTQ+ lawyers can face is whether or not it’s safe to be ‘out’ on their resumes,” said M. Dru Levasseur, deputy program officer of the National LGBT Bar Association & Foundation. “Some attorneys have done a fair amount of LGBTQ+ activism work, either as law students or in their community, and don’t know whether it is safe to signal that they may be LGBTQ+ by including that work on their resume.”
Although a law firm might host a celebration for Pride month or speak kindly about LGBTQ employees at the management level, those attitudes aren’t always reflected in hiring.
“Even law firms with a culture of inclusivity can have hiring partners on staff who are homophobic or transphobic,” said Levasseur.
In the hiring and recruitment process, transgender law students face the additional risk of being outed against their will if references know them by a different name than the one they currently use, Levasseur added.
In general, transgender lawyers still face more barriers than their gay, lesbian and bisexual peers, according to Ru Bhatt, a managing director in MLA’s associate practice group. “That’s the next frontier that needs to be approached,” he said, adding some transgender attorneys want to switch firms due to discrimination. “Their motivation is that they transitioned in their current firms and they’re not treated well, and they want to make a fresh start elsewhere,” said Bhatt.
Talia Nissimyan, an associate at Kaplan Hecker & Fink, was attracted to her firm in part because it goes out of its way to foster LGBTQ inclusivity. The firm was founded by civil rights champion Robbie Kaplan, who argued United States v. Windsor, the 2013 Supreme Court case that paved the way for marriage equality. Three of the firm’s six partners as well as 40 percent of its total lawyers identify as LGBTQ.
“I didn’t end up at Kaplan Hecker because I was looking for a job,” said Nissimyan, who previously worked at Ropes & Gray. “I came in to meet folks and it was immediately clear to me that these are my people.”
“There’s no circumstance where I’m thinking, ‘Oh was that about my gender, or was that about my sexual orientation, or my gender presentation?’” she explained. “It’s a wonderful relief from everyday life, where, for many people with minority identities, it’s constantly in the back of your mind.”
At larger firms, associates don’t just seek out a welcoming culture, but also a set of LGBTQ inclusive policies like neutral parental leave, health insurance plans that cover care for transgender individuals, or all-gender bathrooms, according to Bhatt.
Bhatt said LGBTQ students and associates almost always ask him for specifics about inclusive culture and policy before deciding a firm is right for them.
“A lot of associates are specific that they want to target LGBTQ-friendly firms,” said Bhatt. “They’re unsure how accepting law firms or the legal community can be.” Bhatt said the subject of inclusivity comes up “every time” he works with an LGBTQ associate.
Even at inclusive firms, certain practice groups can make LGBTQ lawyers feel unwelcome, according to Bhatt, who recalled helping a lesbian woman move to a new firm and a new practice area because she felt like she was being treated differently from other lawyers because of her sexual orientation.
“The firm itself was pretty gay-friendly, but within her practice group there weren’t many LGBTQ folks,” said Bhatt. “And within the firm there were lots of gay men and no lesbian women.”
And while most Big Law firms have inclusive policies for LGBTQ lawyers and staff, smaller firms may not be as welcoming, according to Wetmore.
“I don’t think the policies are as uniformly enlightened when you get to second and third tier cities and law firms that don’t roll off the tip of the tongue,” he said. “It’s one thing to be a gay or lesbian lawyer at an office of a couple hundred people. It’s yet another thing to be in a 25-person office in a smaller market.”
“When people are leaving New York, they’ll only consider San Francisco, L.A., D.C. or a place that has a strong gay community,” Bhatt said of his clients. “I remember working with someone, and I told him the hotbed of his practice was down in Charlotte. But he would not consider it.”
“There’s that critical mass point where you feel a lot more comfortable,” explained Wetmore. “In a smaller firm, office, or practice group that’s more insular, it’s a little bit harder to be more different.”