Workplace Progress and Challenges Continue for LGBTQ+ Lawyers

Judge's gavel and books with a rainbow bookmark on wood table. While the number of LGBTQ+ lawyers has increased in the legal profession over the past decades, challenges remain in terms of creating welcoming and inclusive workplaces.

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) recent report on diversity in U.S. law firms, the overall percentage of LGBTQ+ lawyers increased to 4.17% in 2022, roughly half a percentage point higher than in 2021 and almost 4 times the amount of LGBTQ+ attorneys reported in 2002.

Representation has increased at a more accelerated pace at the summer associate and associate levels, with LGBTQ+ summer associates reaching 9.37% of attorneys and LGBTQ+ associates increasing to 6.14% of all associates in 2022.

This increased visibility should inspire the creation of more inclusive work environments, according to some legal professionals.

“When more [LGBTQ+] lawyers and legal staff are out in the workplace, legal employers can and must become more responsive to our needs, including adding partner benefits and generally promoting economic security and financial stability by fostering inclusive labor practices and workplace policies,” Cook County Circuit Judge Catherine A. Schneider told the Commission in 2021.

We spoke with three Illinois attorneys to explore their experiences and the status of inclusion in Illinois legal workplaces.

‘Living an authentic life professionally’

Illinois is among 20 states and Washington D.C. to have laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the Commission’s 2021 Survey on Professionalism, which surveyed more than 1,500 lawyers from across Illinois on their experiences with professionalism, 83% of respondents said their workplace cultivates a culture where people from all backgrounds are welcomed and valued and 77% said they feel comfortable discussing their background and cultural experiences with their coworkers.

However, your comfort level with “living an authentic life professionally” may still depend on where you live and practice law, said Moses Suarez, a Partner at Amundsen Davis and Past President of LAGBAC – Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association.

“There is power in numbers,” he said. “In large metropolitan areas, such as Chicago, the workplace environment is generally safe to come out. Also, having workplace protections such as the Chicago Human Rights ordinance is immensely helpful in this regard.”

Howard S. Suskin, a Partner at Jenner & Block who also serves on its Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee, said that many firms, including Jenner & Block, “are affirmatively proud of our diversity and inclusion rankings by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, through its Corporate Equality Index, and we strive to adopt the best practices advocated by those organizations.”

Suskin said that while LGBTQ+ lawyers face the same challenges that other lawyers do — like work-life balance, concerns about career advancement, and work-related anxiety – some may also juggle the unique challenge of their “evolving identities.”

“LGBTQ+ attorneys, like all LGBTQ+ individuals, may become partially or fully open about their identities at different stages of their lives,” he said. “[S]ome before law school and others not until later in their careers, and some may never be open about their identities, at least to their work colleagues and clients. It’s a dynamic that may or may not change over time, with different challenges at every stage.”

Creating supportive environments

Many law firms and legal organizations are prioritizing creating welcoming and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ lawyers.

Jenner & Block, which topped The National Law Journal’s 2023 LGBTQ Scorecard for the second year in a row, offered LGBTQ+-inclusive benefits and policies (which are now standard in many firms) before many other law firms did. The firm also hosts an active LGBTQ+ affinity group that seeks to ensure the firm’s internal policies line up with its values.

“At my firm, Jenner & Block, we have implemented strong support systems for our LGBTQ+ attorneys and staff, including a vibrant LGBTQ+ employee resource group and ‘mentor circles’ for our LGBTQ+ attorneys, where they can receive advice and share experiences with their colleagues,” Suskin said.

He also emphasized the impact of efforts led by the judiciary, including a program he participated in entitled “Building Confidence in our Legal System.” The three-part series was hosted by the Illinois Judges Association and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism to focus on addressing inequities in the legal system from multiple angles.

“More programs like this, as well as diversity training for court personnel and at law firms, would go a long way to creating more inclusive and welcoming environments for our court system,” Suskin said.

In addition, Suarez noted that lawyers and judges can create more welcoming and inclusive environments by acknowledging and respecting an individual’s pronouns and attending LGBTQ+ events to show their support for their colleagues and the community.

Prioritizing mentoring

Proactive mentoring is another way that law firms can promote inclusive environments, according to Suskin, Suarez, and Adam Miel Zebelian, President of LAGBAC and a Partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck. However, Zebelian noted that finding a mentor can be a challenge for LGBTQ+ attorneys.

“LGBTQ+ lawyers still need mentors, particularly in private practice,” Suarez said too. “Law school doesn’t teach the business of law, which is equally important to the practice of law. LGBTQ+ lawyers may not have the same traditional pastimes as non-LGBTQ+ lawyers and clients. I would encourage LGBTQ+ lawyers and allies to mentor each other in business development for long-term sustainable professional growth.”

LAGBAC is one of the 100-plus legal organizations that collaborate with the Commission on Professionalism in its Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program. The program partners new and more experienced attorneys for legal professionalism-based mentoring.

Jenner & Block and Schiller DuCanto & Fleck also participate in the Commission’s mentoring program.

Challenges for LGBTQ+ lawyers

While there have been positive strides when it comes to inclusion for many in the LGBTQ+ community, Zebelian notes that challenges still exist including discrimination and bias in the workplace.

“The problem with implicit biases is that they are difficult to detect,” Suskin noted. “Sometimes, you just get a gut feeling that someone isn’t viewing you favorably and fairly based on the merits.”

Zebelian and Suskin said that such discrimination can be especially challenging for transgender attorneys.

“The increasing attacks on members of the transgender community are particularly disturbing, as it seems that the floodgates of discrimination have opened against them,” Suskin said.

In the Commission’s 2021 Survey on Professionalism, 41% of respondents strongly agreed that their workplaces always take strict action against any kind of discrimination or intolerance.

Jenner & Block hosts a working group focused on transgender inclusion and prioritizes education within the firm on transgender issues. However, Suskin noted that when this discriminatory behavior is normalized, there is “no assurance that lawyers and judges will be immune to it.”

Want to learn more?

What can you do to support LGBTQ+ lawyers in the workplace? Below are some additional steps and resources lawyers and judges can take.

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