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November 07, 2013 Articles

The Closet Case: Coming Out in the Legal Profession

By Omar J. Alaniz

It's almost hard to say what "coming out" means in today's landscape of DOMA, Prop 8, the It Gets Better project, Facebook and Twitter. If one follows polling data, it would seem that more and more Americans are embracing those who have chosen to live their lives out and proud.  Yet, that still doesn't always make it easy to actually say the words: "I am gay."

For me, it's difficult to imagine what coming out for the first time truly means in this more open era. I made the decision to tell my friends and family in what seems like another time. Yet, I do know that most gay men and women don't just come out once. They spend their whole lives coming out, over and over, to every new person that comes into their lives—and nowhere is this more complicated than the workplace.

As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lawyers, we find ourselves faced with the coming-out decision many times over. We face the decision of whether to come out to peers, other colleagues, the firm generally, and clients. I am frequently asked whether a lawyer should come out in his or her profession. I don't think there is a right answer, but the following are some of my experiences and insights.

I spent the beginning of my first year at my 12-lawyer firm bobbing and weaving around questions about my personal life. After a while, I was concerned that the other young associate was getting more work than me. Also troubling was that my coworkers were not getting to know the real me. I decided to take a leap of faith and come out. The firm was having an all-lawyer gathering with significant others invited. I did not want to surprise the six partners with the gender of my date, so I came out to them individually.

The main partner—also the most aggressive lawyer in our firm—assured, "That is not a problem, that will never be a problem, and if you have a problem with anyone, I will take them down!" I nervously replied, "Thanks . . . I'm . . . good." The only partner who did not beam with encouragement was one who said, "Just don't bring it to the office." I never figured out what "it" meant. Did he think I was going to hang a [gay] pride flag in my office? But instead of taking offense, I accepted the challenge of showing this partner that I was indispensable. I made sure I knew the facts and law better than anyone else on his cases. I don't know if he was homophobic, but I positioned myself so that he could not afford to be. I carried this work ethic to the rest of my early practice and was rewarded with better work and more responsibility.

After three years of practice, I made a lateral move to a large Texas-based firm. I had a commitment ceremony with my partner one month prior to my move. I knew that news of the ceremony had reached some members of my firm by the time I arrived.  Still, I expected having to come out all over again. Instead, my new colleagues immediately asked me about the ceremony and my partner. I was surprised because I thought they would wait for me to come out before asking questions.  But I was comforted in the idea that my sexuality was such a nonissue that I did not need to make a formal proclamation.

Perhaps my short stint as a closeted lawyer is not sufficient time to give me credibility to discuss the difference between practicing in or out of the closet. But I frequently mentor young lawyers who struggle with coming out. I was surprised one day when a female associate came to my office because I had no prior interactions with her—though I had heard she was not popular with her peers. After a series of starts/stops and awkward pauses, she eventually came out to me and shed some tears. She decided to come out to the firm by taking her girlfriend to the next firm event. Her peers were delighted to finally get to know her on a substantive level. In the following weeks, I noticed that she was much more vibrant, happier in the office, and more integrated with her practice group.

The coming-out decision does not end with the lawyer's law firm. Many of us in the legal profession routinely meet new people, including clients and other colleagues in our field. Early in my career, I made a decision not to hide my sexuality. I often hear various forms of the same comment: "I've never known a gay person as well as you, and just knowing you has changed my views about homosexuality."  I realized at some point that we don't all need to be at the podium of the Supreme Court to effect change. Views and attributes are changed with education. And education can be as simple as giving others the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the "real" us. At a networking function, a federal judge's wife was delighted to hear about my newborn twins. She politely asked, "And how is mom doing?" Saying "fine" was temptingly easy. But I lightheartedly replied, "It's kind of a two-dad situation." She humbly apologized and we continued the conversation. For all I know, I may be the first gay parent she's ever met.  Maybe she held unconscious biases about gay parents and our commiseration about the struggles of early parenthood enlightened her.

To be clear, I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for everything. If I am part of a conversion about spouses at a networking function, I usually won't forcefully interject, "Well, my husssband and I . . . "  But I may bring up "my partner" if there is a natural opening. In client settings, I admittedly hold back a little more. I'm not sure if that's "right" or "wrong." But if I am asked a direct question, I will mention my partner rather than opt for the awkward pronoun. I was on a flight with new clients and a senior partner recently on the way to an important hearing.  I was practically silent when the clients and partner talked about their personal lives. I argued the contested hearing, and we achieved a spectacular result.  I now feel more comfortable discussing my personal life in natural conversation because of the indispensable principle I mentioned earlier. 

Most lawyers who face the coming-out decision weigh the pros and cons as to themselves. But coming out can also benefit the lawyer's organization. In 1999, chief legal officers of 500 major corporations signed Diversity in the Workplace—A Statement of Principle. The statement demonstrated an energized commitment to diversity in the legal profession. To further that commitment, corporate legal departments interviewing outside counsel will inquire as to the law firm's commitment to diversity. A client that uses e-billing systems is able to track whether the law firm is staffing its legal matters with diverse lawyers—including LGBT lawyers. When a lawyer self-identifies as gay or lesbian, the law firm is able to add that lawyer to its roster of diverse lawyers. Thus, the self-identified LGBT lawyer is helping the organization and may increase the likelihood of getting staffed on a case or transaction.

When asked to write this article, I was encouraged to share any tips about how to be a successful lawyer.  Though I would not be so bold as to call myself "successful," I attribute any success to the principle I mentioned earlier: Make yourself indispensable. In a conversation with another minority lawyer who has achieved success in her career, we both made the same observation about our work ethic: "Work twice as hard as your neighbor." Is it fair for a minority lawyer to feel that he or she has to work harder to overcome the "unconscious bias" discussed at diversity seminars? Of course not.  But rather than lament, I find it more productive to just do. Let's work as a profession to remove the unconscious bias hurdle from the racetrack. In the meantime, those who are truly committed to success are best served by jumping. 

Keywords: litigation, LGBT, coming out, workplace, bias, culture, relationships, clients, Diversity in the Workplace—A Statement of Principle

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