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LGBTQ students reveal diversity policies they want from firms

A law firm’s reputation for LGBTQ equality is an important factor, and diversity should start in the recruitment process

LGBTQ Pride Month (June) may be over, but there’s still plenty that firms can do to support current and prospective LGBTQ employees.

Law students in the LGBTQ community who want to go into intellectual property law say they look to rankings lists, networking and firms’ websites to gauge a firm’s reputation for being LGBTQ-friendly. Sources add that affinity groups and diversity in the recruitment process are important to them.

Many firms have made efforts to make their offices more inclusive places to work. Not only is this the right thing to do, but recruiting from a wide pool of candidates will help firms hire better people.

A studious approach

For several LGBTQ students at top law schools who spoke to Managing IP, a firm’s reputation for LGBTQ equality is important.

“I would say it’s one of those things I immediately look at when looking at a firm, after their intellectual property practice,” says Robert McMullen, a law student at the University of Pennsylvania who is interested in patent prosecution and litigation.

McMullen says that in addition to looking at a firm’s website, he looks at employee testimonials published on Vault.com, a website that provides rankings on what it’s like to work at companies, to get a sense of a firm’s diversity and inclusion policies.

He also uses his university’s alumni network to learn more about what it’s like to work at firms.

Velo-Vincent van Houden, a student at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, also says that a firm’s reputation for being a good place for LGBTQ equality is one of the top aspects he considers.

“I’m a first-generation college student, and knowing all the different firms was very difficult, so one of the ways I’ve tried to narrow it down was looking at the Human Rights Campaign rankings and scores, as well as the Vault LGBTQ friendly workplaces list, and word of mouth around campus.”  

The Human Rights Campaign has a list of the best places to work for LGBTQ Equality. Several law firms made the list including Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, Kirkland & Ellis and Finnegan Henderson Farabow Garrett & Dunner.

Ernest Fok, a student at Santa Clara University in California, says he has spent a lot of time looking through law firm websites to see how prominent LGBTQ equality measures are. “I always felt that if there was a strong presence, they would advertise it pretty heavily, and if I noticed a website didn’t advertise it heavily or if it seemed to be an afterthought, then there probably wasn’t too big a community at that law firm.”

Maggie Martin, a student at the University of Houston Law Center in Texas, says she hasn’t seen firm outreach related to LGBTQ equality come up often, so it’s not something she can base her job search on.

That being said, she does like to see how a firm addresses diversity as a whole.

“What matters to me in considering firms is looking at the infrastructure that’s already set up and [if it] is committed to diversity, not only for LGBTQ people, but also for black and indigenous people of colour. What stands out to me is who you choose to bring in to get the work done in the long term,” says Martin who is interested in patent prosecution.

“When I was doing interviews, what stood out to me was that I had a partner straight up say ‘we’re failing at this; we’re trying to do better and trying to do better at all levels.’ When they hold up that policy as applicable to the entire firm structure, that’s what makes a difference in my mind.”

Nate Cook, at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, says he looks at what kind of pro bono work a firm does when gauging its reputation for LGBTQ equality. He also looks at what mentorship opportunities are available at firms.

What students want

There are several measures firms can take to be more welcoming to LGBTQ employees.

Fok says he has looked on firms’ websites to see if there are any lawyers who openly identify as LGBTQ and if the firms have LGBTQ affinity groups. “It’s nice to have affinity groups because I can always reach out to those attorneys if I’m curious about how much support they get from the law firm,” he says.

He adds that lawyers tend to be pretty honest about this. “It can be isolating in a law firm environment for people who are LGBTQ if they’re not out yet, so it’s nice knowing there are people they can turn to within the law firm to get that extra bit of support.”

McMullen also likes to see LGBTQ affinity groups at firms. He says that such groups can allow individuals to come together with people at different stages at the firm to talk about their experiences. He says this can be especially valuable because mentorship is so important in the legal field. “Whenever I see a firm do that, I only hear good things about it,” he says.

According to van Houden, diversity should start in the recruitment process. “Even small Zoom meetings with other LGBTQ people who work at the firm where potential employees could learn about their experiences and how they like the firm is something I would like to see.”

Fok would like firms to be aware of inclusive processes when interviewing, and notes that sometimes those conducting interviews have implicit biases. “For myself, as a Chinese American, that’s something I’m mindful of. It’s a little bit more obvious when I show up for an interview how that might influence how the interviewer is responding to my answers.

“On the LGBTQ front, it’s harder to see from appearance, unless I allude to it within my resume or cover letter, such as by referencing an affiliation with my law school’s LGBTQ law student community.

“I would love to see more clear messaging to the people who are conducting the interviews to be mindful of more inclusive hiring practices and the importance of having a more diverse attorney workforce.”       

Fok notes that law firms have started to take more pro bono cases related to transgender issues. “It would be great if by having more LGBTQ attorneys at law firms, there was more of a push to give back to the LGBTQ community through pro bono work.”

Implicit bias concerns

Some students are concerned about encountering implicit bias not only during the hiring process, but also when working with clients.

McMullen says this is a concern for him. “Anytime you’re outside of the majority, you’re always wondering what may happen when you interact with someone.”

He says if firms acknowledge that discrimination is a reality, they can help employees feel more comfortable speaking out. “There’s always going to be implicit bias and I don’t know what the right answer is. I know there are implicit bias trainings that can be done, but I don’t know what firms can necessarily do about that from a client perspective.”

Encountering implicit bias is also something that concerns van Houden at Harvard. “I’m always nervous to encounter that and there can be a feeling of not being welcome in those spaces.”

Cook at the University of Michigan Law School says implicit bias is something he expects to encounter at some point. “Part of your job is to work with people whom you don’t agree with on all issues, people who may not agree with your sexual orientation, so you have to be prepared for that.”

He adds: “At the same, I want a work environment that supports me and so if a client says something overt that’s offensive to me or hurtful to me, I would hope the partner working above me, if they’re there or they hear about it, would be willing to say something to the client.”

Testimonials from these students is a reminder that firms can support their LGBTQ employees not just during Pride Month, but all year round.

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