General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
Not an Issue
By Janet Kole
I have a small firm in which there are two full-time lawyers, four of counsel, a paralegal, and an office manager. The most notable thing about the firm, apart from our niche practice in environmental law, is that all of the employees are women. Three of us are gay.
To me and, I believe, to my clients, my sexual orientation is a non-issue. I have no idea what people say behind my back, of course, but my experience is that my sexual orientation is irrelevant to whether clients want to hire me or my firm. We represent Fortune 500 companies as well as regional companies and individual entrepreneurs. In the 20 years that I've practiced, none of my clients has raised the issue. That doesn't surprise me-clients care about results, not my private life. For the same reason, my religion and political party affiliation have never been topics of discussion.
But my experience may not be typical. My decision to be "out" as a lesbian had its genesis in being closeted at the beginning of my legal career at a big firm. It was 1980 Philadelphia and both the city and its legal profession were uptight and conservative. I hated hiding part of my life from my colleagues. After five years, I decided (rightly or wrongly) that I could not come out at this firm without adverse consequences. I decided to move, but only to a firm where I could be open about who I am. I explicitly looked for and found such a firm, and practiced there for 10 years, becoming a partner in the process. The example of tolerance my partners and colleagues presented to the legal community and to our clients was a major factor in my being judged on my abilities as a lawyer rather than on my personal life.
How did I go about finding a tolerant environment? First, I used a headhunter. I was candid with her about what I was looking for and why. Second, I was completely up front with the prospective associates and partners. I knew if I couldn't be open from the beginning, I would have a hard time opening up to them later. When one of the lawyers from this firm-who later became my law partner-said to me "you can come here and be who you are," I knew I'd hit pay dirt.
Can everyone be "out" and experience no negative career impact? I can't answer that. I do believe that work quality has the most to do with a client's choice of lawyer and with a firm's valuing of a lawyer. Of course, clients hire lawyers they believe they can work well with and feel comfortable with. There may be clients who can't tolerate working with a known gay lawyer. There may be other lawyers who feel the same way. There are bigots everywhere. It helps to be personable and active in bar or civic organizations, so that people get to know you for something other than your sexual orientation.
What do you do if you are in a repressive, bigoted environment? Some people would counsel you to stay closeted. I know lawyers in their fifties who will never acknowledge to anyone in their work environment that they are gay. If you are tagged as being gay and are actively discriminated against, you have two choices: leave or hire a lawyer. Whether you do the latter will depend on the availability of good case law on sexual orientation harassment in your jurisdiction, and on your tolerance for pain (because being a plaintiff is no fun, no matter how much revenge you want.)
As for me, being "out" was a choice that seemed inevitable and I haven't regretted it for one day. By the same token, I decided to open my own firm because I want to run my firm and my life exactly as I see fit. I try to maintain a nurturing environment for my employees where they can be who they are (which includes a nursing mom who pumps twice a day.) When a lawyer brings his or her entire self into the office, the quality of the legal work improves and the clients are better served. And, of course, that's all most clients really care about.
Janet S. Kole practices in Collingswood, New Jersey, and can be contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.