October 14, 2010 | by Patrick Folliard
Climate improving for LGBT attorneys: study

Over the years, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) has proven itself a reliable ally to the LGBT legal community. First with a trailblazing 2003 report exploring the status of gay and lesbian attorneys in the profession, and again recently with a more inclusive research study titled, “The New Paradigm of LGBT Inclusion: A Recommended Resource For Law Firms.”

Gathered, assessed, and reported by MCCA’s executive director Veta Richardson along with the association’s general counsel Brandon Fitzgerald and leading diversity expert Arin Reeves, this latest research examines the impact of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression on attorneys in large law firms. And while the D.C.-based organization — whose mission includes advocating for the expanded hiring promotion, and retention of minority attorneys in corporate legal departments and the law firms that serve them — acknowledges a lot of progress has been made over the last decade, there remains work to be done in establishing full equality for LGBT attorneys in the corporate law workplace.

Fitzgerald, who was recently recognized as a “Best LGBT Lawyer Under 40” by the National LGBT Bar Association, explains that overall the research found most LGBT attorneys – like their straight counterparts – to be committed to their firms and professions. However many respondents were concerned about their employers’ commitment to diversity and inclusion, and expressed how at times this can impact their job satisfaction and performance. Fitzgerald was particularly struck by research indicating that gay white male attorneys report a much more positive working experience than women and attorneys of color. He was also surprised to learn about a significant number of attorneys who gender express as men at work and as women during their off hours.

The research also revealed some striking generational differences: “While the older group sometimes considered coming out at work a risky choice, the younger attorneys shared a perspective that being out isn’t really a choice and must be accommodated by their employers,” Fitzgerald said.

Not long after taking the helm at MCCA in 2001, Richardson expanded the organization’s agenda in terms of minority focus to include sexual orientation, gender, and disabilities in addition to race and ethnicity. When other bar associations weren’t talking too much about gays and lesbians, MCCA under Richardson was. In her early days on the job, she made sure to honor firms that offered same-sex partner benefits to its employees. She ran an attention-grabbing article in MCCA’s magazine, “Diversity & the Bar,” about working conditions for gay and lesbian attorneys and soon after Richardson kicked off a year of research that resulted in her 2003 report, “Perspectives from the Invisible Bar: Gay & Lesbian attorneys in the Profession.”

In 2009, MCCA published a broad research report about the state of diversity in law firms in general. Of the many legal professionals who participated in the research, 5 percent self identified as LGBT. This encouraging number prompted Richardson to reopen the 2003 report, but this time, broadening it to include bisexual and transgender attorneys. Although MCCA’s first LGBT report was considered cutting edge when it was published, today it speaks too narrowly — there are parts missing, and Richardson was determined to fix that: A special section of the 2010 report is dedicated to raising awareness about the challenges faced by transgender attorneys.

While collecting anecdotal research, Richardson had a heart-to-heart talk with a partner in a major law firm who is transgender. That conversation resulted in an epiphany. “I was able to see the world through her eyes. Hearing about the disrespect and bigotry she had experienced made me tearful and angry. Speaking with her, I felt ashamed of my ignorance, but I also felt resolved that I wanted to make a difference for transgender people.”

In an effort to stimulate change from the top down, MCCA gears its frequently requested reports to firm and corporate management, giving away thousands of copies at no cost. One of the delights of the job for both Richardson and Fitzgerald is learning that an attorney or a firm manager has used one of MCCA’s resources to prompt a discussion in the work place. Discussion is the first step on the road to change.

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