lgbtq+ lawyers allyship, Closeup of LGBT flag pin attached to business suit. LGBT rights concept

Consider this scenario: In work-related emails and in-office interactions, a colleague frequently shares memes and tells “jokes” that disrespect transgender people. You see this as problematic. Do you:

A. Respond to one of your colleague’s “jokes,” telling them that you are not comfortable with their disrespect of transgender people.

B. Approach your colleague privately and share your concerns about them disrespecting the transgender community.

C. Make a request to firm leadership that the office receives allyship training and education.

D. Do nothing. You are unsure how to respond. You don’t want to say or do the wrong thing, create conflict with your colleague or among the team, or be seen as a complainer.

In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to focus this article on how we can be a better ally to the LGBTQ+ legal community.

Because, as Giuliana Martinez, senior associate at Fragomen LLP and historian of LAGBAC – Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association, said, “It is important for all to know that Pride Month is a time to celebrate (parades, parties, and décor) all the strides that have been made in the community. But it is also a time to highlight the work that still needs to be done to promote inclusion of all the members of the [LGBTQ+] community.”

The LGBTQ+ legal population is growing

Representation of the LGBTQ+ community in the legal profession is growing, especially as younger generations move into the workplace.

According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2023 report on diversity at U.S. law firms, almost 5% of lawyers identified as LGBTQ+ in 2023, 4.5 times the number who identified as LGBTQ+ in 2003.

Representation has increased at a more accelerated rate at the summer associate and associate levels. In 2023, almost 7% of all associates and 12% of summer associates were LGBTQ+.

The increased visibility of LGBTQ+ lawyers in the profession hopefully inspires law firms and legal professionals to take action to ensure they feel welcomed, respected, valued, and supported. But the challenge can be how to do so and where to start.

What is allyship?

In her talk “From Intention to Action: Ten Rules for Allyship in the Legal Workplace” at the Commission’s 2024 Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, Michelle Silverthorn (attorney, author, and founder & CEO of Inclusion Nation) helped attendees define what it means to be an ally and understand their role in allyship.

Silverthorn describes allyship as the active and consistent use of “your privilege to exercise power on behalf of communities with less privilege than your own.”

“We are allies when we stand, march, fight, and speak up in solidarity with marginalized individuals or groups. We are allies when we actively and consistently work towards their rights and inclusion,” she says.

In her talk, Silverthorn outlined 10 actions lawyers can take to translate what might be “good intentions” to be an ally into actual action that supports others in the legal profession. (The talk is now available as a free CLE on the Commission’s website.)

I want to focus on three tips Silverthorn shared that stuck out for me.

1. Show up

lgbtq+ lawyers
Nisha Dotson, Cook County Assistant Public Defender

To move from intention to action, lawyers must show up in support of their LGBTQ+ colleagues. Michelle suggests allies start by evaluating how they donate their money, time, and resources. For example, do you attend events supporting the LGBTQ+ community?

Nisha Dotson, Cook County Assistant Public Defender and a member of LAGBAC, agrees, saying, “The best way for legal professionals to be better allies to LGBTQ+ lawyers is by being supportive of LGBTQ+ initiatives.”

This may include advocating for legislative advancements and policy or workplace procedures that positively impact the LGBTQ+ community, she said.

Silverthorn also recommends that lawyers educate themselves on the challenges and biases that those from other backgrounds face in their workplaces, bar associations, or other organizations.

lgbtq+ lawyers guiliana martinez
Guiliana Martinez, Senior Associate at Fragomen LLP

When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, “Genuinely being open to educating oneself on upward solutions to LGBTQ+ inclusivity in every aspect of the legal profession” is a simple act of allyship that lawyers can do daily, Dotson noted.

Education can come in the form of reading books by members of the LGBTQ+ community, attending bar association and community events that celebrate and support the LGBTQ+ community, or taking CLEs centered around the LGBTQ+ experience.

Martinez stated that education can also include “remaining up to date on the evolving recognition of identity.” Following organizations like PFLAG and GLADD – which are committed to supporting, educating, and advocating for the LGBTQ+ community – can help lawyers stay informed.

2. Stand up and speak up

In using Silverthorn’s allyship guidance, once you are more informed on the challenges LGBTQ+ lawyers face, it’s time to stand up and speak up. She sees this step as using “one’s platform and resources to interrupt bias when one witnesses it.”

Opportunities for allies to speak up can occur in office meetings, email correspondence, or in the courtroom when you witness bias.

As Silverthorn said, “Standing up and speaking up is not ignoring something that seems problematic – this is the difference between being a bystander and an upstander. A bystander is someone who sees exclusionary biases but doesn’t do anything to stop them, while upstanders do their best to support and protect their peers.”

Let’s revisit our initial allyship scenario. Options A, B, and C are ways to respond as an upstander. It is important to note that, while allies can stand up and speak up to address a problematic situation in the moment, immediate action isn’t required.

Allyship involves a thoughtful approach and in some situations, it may be more appropriate to address the issue privately, for fear of further alienating the person with whom you are allying. It is important in these moments to evaluate the power you hold and understand the impact your words and actions will have on everyone involved.

3. Turn on the lights

Michelle Silverthorn notes that allies often have privileges or hold more power in organizations than those they are allying with. She encourages allies to use this power to “turn on the lights” in their organizations, highlighting workplace systems and policies that can be more inclusive and pushing for change.

Because allyship is meant to be consistent and ongoing, allies should approach this work with the hope that, in leading by example, others will follow and engage in the work alongside them. This can help ensure that your marginalized colleagues do not have to fight for equity alone.

Using Michelle’s metaphor, when a lawyer acting as an ally “turns on the lights” in their organization by speaking out about things like inequitable case assignments or unbalanced promotions, it provides an opportunity to educate colleagues about these situations.

It also provides an opportunity for those who have faced biases and inequities in the dark to step forward and work in a culture that is aware of these challenges.

Some people in the organization may embrace the changes that result from turning the lights on, while others could get frustrated; it may take a while for their eyes to adjust. In the end, hopefully, everyone will see the benefits of all employees feeling valued, respected, and welcomed within their workplaces.

In our interview, Dotson agreed with the importance of allies who assist in “advocating for more LGBTQ+ inclusive policies in the workplace.” Martinez said that encouraging pronoun usage and establishing gender-neutral bathrooms could be a good place for legal workplaces to start.

Want to learn more?

Want to learn more about how to be an active and intentional ally for LGBTQ+ lawyers? Below are some additional steps and resources to explore.

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.

Workplace Progress and Challenges Continue for LGBTQ+ Lawyers

LGBTQ Lawyers Across Generations Reflect on Progress and Continued Challenges

Where to Get Free Online CLE Before the 6/30 MCLE Completion Deadline (Including a New Commission Course)

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