Representation Matters and It’s Good Business

By Mark Lerner 

When I started my legal career at a small firm over 25 years ago, I had trepidations over whether I could be myself and practice law.  Would partners want to work with me?  Would clients?  I had come out of the closet before going to law school and was even a member of the law school’s LGBT law student group. I didn’t want to be back in the closet at work, but I was also afraid to be fully out.

After I received an offer, I “outed” myself to a hiring partner who seemed sympathetic so I could test the waters and see if I would be able to be open.  That went OK, and I accepted the offer.  However, after I arrived, I was warned by a couple of associates that I might want to be careful around certain partners, including, the head of the firm.  (My mentor advised that it wasn’t that he was homophobic, rather he just didn’t really want to know about anybody’s love life.  Over time I realized that this was a rationalization and wasn’t really true.)  I didn’t exactly go back in the closet, but I found myself censoring myself.  I carefully excised references to my partner and was a bit vague and cagey in discussing what I had done over a weekend.  (Back then, before we were married, I called him my partner.  It was confusing in the law firm context.  It’s much easier now that I can just call him my husband.)

After a while, when I was more confident that my legal skills were appreciated and that I was valued, I became more open and eventually brought my husband to firm events. The sky didn’t fall.  Nonetheless I was still often reserved with clients. I engaged in the same self-censorship when meeting new clients for the first time, and even beyond.  I didn’t fully answer questions and in casual conversation would elide facts that would signal I was gay.  Eventually, I forced myself to end this practice as well. It seemed to me that the deepest client relationships were those in which clients were or became friends. How could this happen if they didn’t actually know me?  So I let down my guard and began being more authentic in conversations.  Again the sky didn’t fall.

In fact, from both these new coming out journeys there were really only positive effects. First, I became more invested in the firm, since it was somewhere I could be comfortable being myself. Second, partners who I had been warned about became some of my biggest supporters. One shared with me the joy he experienced going to his first same-sex wedding. When I adopted a baby, another even commented that he thought I was doing a wonderful thing. Finally, I did indeed develop stronger relationships with my clients who came to know me as a person.  I’m not sure that being out has helped be get new business, but it has certainly strengthened my existing client relationships.  It also made me a better lawyer, since it eliminated the unnecessary expenditure of psychic energy that is involved in worrying about who will know or find out or what I can say in a business setting.  As a bonus, I believe that by being out and true to myself I changed some hearts and minds – of partners, and likely clients as well. Just being visible erased some of the mystery for them and made it harder for the to see me as somehow “other.”  I realize how much representation and people hearing personal stories matters.  It makes people realize there are more points of connection than differences: I’m a dad as much as I’m a “gay dad.”  I have the same joys and struggles as a parent. I know I have been so appreciative of hearing the stories of diverse friends and colleagues over the past month.

I would like to think the world has changed enough that today a young lawyer would never even have to think twice about being authentically themselves. (And thankfully the Supreme Court has now made it the law of the land that one cannot be fired for being authentically one’s own gender or sexuality.)  As Pride month comes to a close and we reflect on what is hopefully a meaningful awakening in this country to “white privilege”/“white fragility.” I hope that young lawyers will keep moving the profession forward and pushing the system to truly recognize that our diversity is our greatest strength.  It is true for the country as a whole and true for the practice and business of law.

*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride.