August 27, 2019 Articles

Unlocking LGBTQ Equity in Law Firms … in Three Simple Steps

Improvisational theater techniques offer ideal tools for learning how to address bias.

By Brooke Cartus

We spend our lives cultivating a tool that perpetuates bias in our daily lives. What tool is that? I’ll give you a hint: it’s between your ears.

That’s correct: it’s your brain!

Since childhood, we have trained our brains to categorize everything—shapes, sizes, colors—because the recognition of differences helps us understand the world around us. Our ability to analyze and find differences where others see sameness is perpetuated in law school; for many of us, our ability to see nuance in an argument is the exact reason that we went to law school in the first place.

So how do we, as successful attorneys, take advantage of our ability to analyze complex situations quickly without letting our biases go unchecked? The answer lies in improv. Improvisational theater techniques offer ideal tools for learning how to lean into uncomfortable situations and create meaningful change that transforms individuals, teams, and organizations. This article first gives an overview of bias in the workplace and then sets out three changes that can be made using improvisational theater methods.

Workplace Biases: An Overview

We’ve all heard about Starbucks shutting down its espresso machines for one day to address bias—yet bias takes more than a day to shake. After all, these biases don’t start when a lawyer walks into work on the first day of a job in a firm or as corporate counsel. They start decades prior.

According to a Harvard study, one in five LGBTQ Americans report being discriminated against when applying for a job. Firms often try to curtail these numbers by attempting to strip names or activities from resumes to prevent biases from creeping in during the hiring process. But what if the redaction process itself exacerbates the bias problem? And what if the biases that long impacted a young attorney are already embedded in that attorney’s CV? For example, let’s assume that two candidates for an associate position have solid educational backgrounds and a strong list of references. However, what if Candidate A has more extracurricular engagements listed because the LGBTQ activities of Candidate B were stripped for “fairness”? And what if Candidate B has a few less publications than Candidate A because of LGBTQ bias that Candidate B experienced in law school that prevented Candidate B from getting published as much as Candidate A? Biases pile up quickly. And in the competitive legal field, even “small” advantages can make a candidate stand out.

To address bias, the first step is to admit that you have biases in the first place. We are all victims of the values and assumptions that we bring into every environment. Why would the workplace be any different?

All people carry bias with them every day, and addressing bias is a lifelong process. Remember that statistic that floats around every January claiming that it takes 30 days to break a bad habit? That’s where we start—incremental changes to everyday behaviors that transform a culture.

Change #1: Take a Pause.

Improvisers are masters of the pause. Take a beat in theater-speak means to be quiet, look around, and allow the moment to happen.

We all have coded language that our brains use to justify our biases—the most used language being that a person isn’t a “good fit.” What that often means is that making a new connection with a person with different values or a different background may require you to pause, engage, and learn something new.

In uncomfortable situations, it’s critical to take a moment to let your brain catch up with your behavior. Look at the two new associate hires in front of you and ask yourself, “Is there a reason that I feel more comfortable going to lunch with Candidate A than Candidate B? Is it because Candidate B’s family doesn’t look like my family? Is it because I don’t think that we have anything in common?”

The art of the pause won’t just help when addressing your biases. Becoming a pro at reading a situation without allowing your stress hormones to make decisions for you will improve your ability to handle stressful situations.

Be the master of the stage—and your own actions.

Change #2: Treat Everyone Equally—Really

Improvisers walk on stage with no props. No set. No costumes. We are all on an equal playing field, set with all the same tools: our brains and our bodies.

With respect to the theater of law, though, ask yourself: “Am I setting the stage for equity?”

Let me give an example. In working with a people leader, ImprovEdge, the improv-based business-training company for which I work, discovered that he was asking every member of his team how his or her weekend was, except the one gay man on the team. The leader confessed that he felt uncomfortable asking the gay man about his weekend, even though the man had a spouse and children just like everyone else on the team. The pictures on the man’s desk were the same: a framed photo of the whole family apple picking, another from their last holiday, and school pictures of his children.

After discovering this misstep, the leader candidly addressed and took responsibility for what seemed like a small thing. He changed his behavior to ensure that he was asking the same questions of every team member.

In following up with this leader, the ImprovEdge team learned that this leader built better connections and communication with his employee by making him feel welcome, and that this employee was now the most productive on his team.

So, ask yourself: “Am I asking everyone in my practice group the same question when I walk in every morning? Is it the same for every person?

Change #3: Invest in Your Team as a Coconspirator

In improvisation, if we don’t invest in our teams, we are doomed.

Similarly, in the practice of law, you must invest in your team—not just as an ally but also as a coconspirator—to achieve success.

A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio found that more than half of LGBTQ Americans report slurs, offensive comments, or harassment in the workplace. If this number surprises you, I encourage you to phone a friend in the LGBTQ legal community and ask him or her to grab a coffee (it’s on you!) and share a story.

How are you showing up for one another, even in a high-stress environment? I am not always be in the room when a slur or offensive comment is made. To me, an LGBTQ lawyer, an ally is someone who doesn’t go along with the offensive joke. A coconspirator, on the other hand, stands up for me and people like me when I’m not there—not to get the credit but because it is the right thing to do.

It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s good for business. Research published in Forbes shows that organizations that invest in connections on their teams survive economic downturns more resiliently. Yet, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), over 40 percent of leaders claim that they are “too busy” to make time for diversity initiatives.

If you want to invest in your future, investment in diversity initiatives is key. And if you aren’t yet making decisions at the partner or management level, the best way that you can positively impact diversity initiatives is to take steps to create a welcoming environment that doesn’t just tolerate diversity but embraces it.


Nothing changes overnight, and the assumptions that we make about those around us every day are hard to crack in just one day of unconscious bias training. It’s a process to learn about how the secrets of the stage can unlock your ability to treat all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, with equity and respect—but it’s a process well worth investing in.

Brooke Cartus is a licensed attorney and the director of business development and senior facilitator for ImprovEdge in Columbus, Ohio.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).