It was the lunch I had been looking forward to all summer.
I had been to at least 10 lunches with fellow summer associates, numerous partners, and the head of recruiting for the firm, but I felt in some substantial way that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) affinity group lunch would be different.
I had no idea what to expect from a summer associate position at one of the largest law firms in Manhattan. With the assumption that I would end up working in the not-for-profit world, I opted to attend a fairly low-ranked law school in exchange for full tuition assistance and a chance to participate in a unique fellowship program for students engaged in advocacy on behalf of the LGBT community.
After my first semester, a handful of professors urged me to consider private practice and to participate in on-campus interviews. For those who have never endured the process, on-campus interviews consist of a grueling few weeks wherein first- and second-year law students sit through what feels like hundreds of 10-minute interviews with representatives from some of the most highly regarded law firms in the world, in hopes of receiving a call back interview and, eventually, a summer associate position.
The "Perfect" LGBT Job Candidate
My classmates and I were told, time and time again, that the chance of one of us taking a summer associate spot from a deserving Yale or Columbia student was a long shot. Yet, I was - almost literally - pushed through the interview process, with more than one mentor making it clear that I should not shy away from highlighting my lesbianism to interested firms. One even noted that I was the "perfect" LGBT candidate because, as she more than insinuated, my somewhat feminine presentation would allow a firm to check the diversity box without fear of how my presentation might challenge traditional gender norms in the conference or court room.
For me, the social events were the most intimidating part of the summer associate experience. I lived in Brooklyn before deciding to attend law school, temping and working as a paralegal at a midsize personal injury firm in Midtown for three years. Although I lived within striking distance of many of them, I never before had the type of disposable income needed to actually purchase a meal at many of the restaurants I visited that summer. These lunches were sometimes thrilling, sometimes tedious, and always utterly daunting.
The LGBT affinity group lunch was my beacon, the place I envisioned finding my community. It was not until sitting down at the white oblong table at ABC Kitchen in Lower Manhattan, however, that I realized I was the only woman attending the lunch. Even still, I assumed that the white gay men sitting with me would welcome me into the group. The majority did just that. I felt warmth and acceptance from senior associates, the head of recruiting, and many of my fellow LGBT summer associates. The discomfort I felt at other lunches - especially while fielding the typical "Where are you attending law school?" and "Where are you living?" questions from the double-Harvard who is "staying in his parent's Park Avenue pied-à-terre" - dissipated.
After we ordered, the conversation turned to the struggles LGBT people face in private practice, especially Big Law environments. As the discussion grew more and more personal, as these types of conversations often do, one summer associate ended his story with the following exclamation: "It is just so much easier to be a lesbian in society than a gay man!"
I was stunned. It was not that my colleague's story of struggling through college as an effeminate man in a culture unquestionably obsessed with male masculinity was misplaced. Toxic masculinity is a real issue with broad and important implications, especially for gay men and gender non-conforming folks. That said, almost all women, gay or straight, will likely understand the angst I felt in that moment. I was the only woman at a table full of white men, essentially being challenged to explain how my struggles could possibly equal theirs, to speak for all queer women, to defend my place at the table.
My colleague's position was nothing I had not heard before. "Lesbians are celebrated in the media." "Their sexuality is heralded, almost worshipped!" "Where a gay male couple is viewed with disgust and suspicion, a lesbian couple is viewed with appreciation and desire." I was quiet and let the conversation go on. Arguments in favor of his contention flew back and forth across the table, echoing more of the same.
My nervousness and desire to simply move past this topic were palpable. I clammed up and forced a smile. Perhaps sensing my unease, the firm's head of recruiting shot me a kind look and asked, "Kelly, what do you think?" My voice cracked, and I could feel my face burn with embarrassment and an eagerness to say the right thing. After attempting a few words meant to acknowledge my colleagues' sincerity, I simply asked my companions to look around the table and note the number of female-identifying queers joining us for lunch.
While I received a handful of approving nods, my colleagues were silent for what felt like far too long. Finally, a senior associate sitting directly across from me smiled broadly and yelled, "You go, girl!" I was beyond appreciative. The mood at the table eased, and the discussion flowed, almost naturally, to the need to stop fetishizing female sexuality, particularly lesbianism, and how these issues, along with toxic masculinity, inhibit queer participation in predominantly male professions.
What does LGBT Diversity Mean in Big Law?
The remainder of our discussion was riveting, and I still look back on that lunch with fondness and a gratitude for being urged to speak up. Still, I left lunch that day questioning how I fit into Big Law culture and, specifically, what LGBT diversity efforts in private practice mean to the number of talented queer attorneys who do not fit the white, cisgender, and male epitome.
After graduation, I was excited to accept an offer to return full-time to the firm where I spent that summer. I've since moved on, spending a couple years at another law firm in Manhattan before returning to my wife's hometown to join Greenberg Traurig's Albany office a few years ago. Each firm has made their devotion to LGBT diversity clear, and I have never personally felt discriminated against for being an out lesbian. In fact, I love my job and have always felt welcomed and respected by my colleagues.
As noted above, however, I "pass." Little about my physical presentation invites questions about my sexuality. Unless I am attending an event with my wife, participating in an LGBT-focused group, or speaking to someone with excellent gaydar, I am, for the most part, assumed to be a straight, white, professional woman.
Putting aside frustrations about femme invisibility in and outside of the queer community, the privilege of passing allows me, and those like me, fully to take advantage of efforts to advance LGBT diversity in private practice. I check an all-encompassing box labeled "LGBT" but, apart from my femaleness, do not do much to challenge the quintessential image of a young attorney in Big Law. My gay, cisgender, white, male colleagues do even less.
This is not merely one person's observation. Despite the increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion within the legal field over the past decade or so, the legal profession remains one of the least diverse of any profession.1 In fact, notwithstanding many employers' commitment to LGBT equality within their firms, the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) has consistently noted that "important studies by major bar associations have found that LGBT lawyers still experience discrimination in the workplace." 2 Recent employment data demonstrates that lesbian, gay and bisexual law school graduates were "far more likely to be working for a public interest organization . . . and less likely to be working at a [private] law firm compared with any other demographic group based on gender and race/ethnicity."3
It is well understood that diversity - and specifically, a "commitment to treating and compensating LGBT lawyers fairly and equally" - is key to attracting and retaining the best and brightest young lawyers.4 Although advances in this area should be commended, law firm leadership cannot become complacent. Real, in-depth discussions regarding ways to expand diversity efforts in the legal community must continue.
One topic that should be considered is the homogenous nature of the "LGBT" diversity category. As bell hooks noted in her powerful (or some might say, notorious) critique of Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In, "race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference ma[k]e explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we [can] call 'women'[.]"5 The same can be said for the "LGBT" moniker, especially with respect to diversity efforts in private practice.
Discussions should call for a more accurate representation of the queer community in the legal profession, one that embraces or, at the very least, acknowledges the reality of intersectionality. Without this, efforts to improve LGBT diversity will either plateau or continue to provide a limited platform aimed to assist only those members of our community who already enjoy the perks of some real, or perceived, privilege.
Private practice as a whole would benefit from these discussions. The brilliant transgender man who graduated summa cum laude from a top school, sat through 25 on-campus interviews, and failed to receive a single call back offer, would appreciate these discussions. The firm that attempted to recruit a black, gender non-conforming queer person with credentials to die for and a reluctance to even consider a position in private practice for fear of discrimination would be eager to participate in these discussions. And, I would wager, the white, privileged, gay men I had lunch with nearly 10 years ago, many who now sit in positions of power across the country, would welcome and seek to advance these discussions.