Business & Practice

Perspective: Seyfarth Attorney on Being LGBT in Big Law

May 10, 2016, 8:54 PM

Editor’s Note: This post is written by a legal consultant. It is part of a series of interviews with leaders in the legal industry about diversity and inclusion.

By Jeena Cho, Partner, JC Law Group PC

I recently sat down with Laura Maechtlen on The Resilient Lawyer podcast to chat about her career at Seyfarth Shaw, her work with the LGBT community, and what a more diverse and inclusive workplace truly looks like.

Laura is the co-chair of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion initiatives and Vice Chair of the firm’s Labor and Employment Department. She leads a number of boards and bar organizations that aim to promote diversity in the legal profession.

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JC:With Seyfarth, did you have any hesitation about sharing the fact that you are part of the LGBT community?

LM:Throughout law school I had been an out member of the LGBT community — the “L” part of that community. Coming to Seyfarth, I was thrilled to get the interview. I was so excited, in fact, that I had convinced myself I never would get the job.

When I had applied to Seyfarth, I had concerns that the firm would not allow me to spend the time doing LGBT Bar Association work. I was so worried that I presented my Board role as something that the Firm did not ever need to support, but I wanted to make sure that I was not going to be penalized in my hours requirements or performance standards when I engaged in Board work.

To my surprise and delight, the partner who interviewed me for the position responded very favorably and was quite enthusiastic. And, he wasn’t a member of the LGBT community. The firm embraced my participation with the LGBT Bar, and they celebrated it, which was surprising to me at the time as a second-year Associate.

JC:What more needs to be done or should be done in terms of creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment for the LGBT community?

LM:We are not where we need to be for LGBT attorneys in the profession. We still have a lot of work to do in a couple of primary areas.

There are not comprehensive, non-discrimination laws across the United States for LGBT people. We remain in a position where — although there are a lot of organizations like the LGBT Bar or the Human Rights Campaign that encourage law firms to report on LGBT status for the purpose of measuring and promoting LGBT diversity in our profession — there are firms in jurisdictions where there are attorneys that, if they come out, and they raise their hand and say that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they could be lawfully fired from their job.

There are still people that we meet every year at the Lavender Law Conference, the annual national conference of the LGBT Bar, that are attending the conference on their own dime and they’re not willing to be “out” within their firm, or publically share the fact that they are member of the LGBT community.

There is a lot of research that says that people are not as good in their jobs and they are not as successful if they have to hide who they are. I was lucky in that regard. Even as a junior associate, I could see leaders [at Seyfarth] who were out and proud. For those of us in firms like Seyfarth, we can take that visibility of diverse leaders for granted. Lack of leadership support is a real problem for people in firms or other organizations where they can’t be themselves and they can’t be open about who they are.

JC:Throughout your practice, has there been a situation where you felt like you were being discriminated against because you’re part of the LGBT community?

LM:I’m stuttering here — and hesitating — because I suddenly feel very blessed to answer this question in the negative. I have never felt that way.

I have certainly had my fair share of very awkward conversations with people and I’ve had a joke with one of my dear partners who I think is wonderful (I won’t say which firm he worked at).

I was on a family [cell phone] plan so my significant other’s name came up [when I called other people], and it was a female name. He asked me who she was. I explained, “Oh, that’s my partner.”

He said, “That’s your partner? We don’t have a law partner with that name! That doesn’t make sense.” I said, “No, no, no. It’s not that kind of partner. Like as in my significant other. As in my girlfriend.” And then there was this long pause and he said, “Oh f**k. That’s so confusing.” It was awkward at first, but ultimately really funny.

Awkward things happen, but I am lucky to have felt comfortable enough at my respective firms to say, “Hey, this is who I am” and be open and honest about my identity.

JC:Maybe it’s more of a challenge if it’s your race or you’re a transgender person? It becomes more difficult to just stay neutral and not say anything because it’s part of how you look.

LM:That’s a huge point. If we are creating inclusive environments for other people, it’s important to talk about invisible diversity.

There’s a really interesting book Covering , by Kenji Yoshino. The idea is that people who are diverse “cover” their diversity or their difference by assimilating to mainstream culture.

It’s a very powerful concept when you’re trying to talk about issues of inclusion because I, for example, have invisible diversity in many different ways. When I had longer hair, there is few ways that you would visibly determine whether I might be lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual. I am of Hispanic descent and I present with very light skin. I can present in rooms as, essentially, a straight white woman. That “visible” lack of diversity has a lot of privilege.

JC:I would imagine it’s difficult and painful for a transgender person to not be able to live as their authentic self.

LM:It’s something that is really a fundamental issue for the transgender community. When you are walking through every day, believing and feeling — and knowing — that you were born in the wrong body, being forced to align yourself with that wrong body and wrong gender, to present at work or to go out in public, must be a horrible feeling.

For that reason, the joy and the relief that would come with an ability to come out and live authentically in a way that is aligned with your gender identity is incredibly important for the transgender community.

We as a profession need to be aware that we have colleagues who are transgender, in our firms, in bar associations and otherwise. Hopefully the profession can learn to provide them support, within their organizations or otherwise, to be supported in coming out and transitioning and living truthfully for themselves and within their profession.

JC:One final question before I let you go. What does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?

LM:It means standing every time you trip and fall and continuing to move forward, even if your path is blocked. It means standing tall, being proud of yourself in what you’re contributing, and persisting—changing the direction of your sail, if your sailboat hits a stormy patch. And, it’s about celebrating yourself.

Listen to the full interview with Laura Maechtlen on The Resilient Lawyer podcast.

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