An LGBTQ Associate’s Guide To My New Large Firm

Alain VilleneuveBy Alain Villeneuve

Chapter 2: The Annual Review

As a young associate making my way to partnership, each year in the early fall, I felt myself slowly become more agitated and a feeling of unease arose within me. Routine criticisms about my response times, my legal work, or even clerical mistakes somehow punched deeper under the armor. I figured it was due to the arrival of fall or the workload of the yearly billable hour clock about to hit noon.


Being promoted to partner did not resolve the problem; in fact, it was just exacerbated. After years of therapy, I was finally able to pinpoint the source of my unrest and put a name to this inner demon: The Annual Review.


Numbers do not lie. Some experts have found the LGBTQ community is at most 7% of the population. Since high school, I slowly managed to increase the proportion of LGBT people around me. On social media I joined LGBTQ groups, and my network of friends is almost exclusively from my community. But, at work there is no hiding the fact most everyone around me is not LGBTQ. In fact, at a minimum, 93% of my work colleagues are straight. That number in large law firms can reach a whopping 98-99%.


At the time of the annual review, even in the most diversified of firms, almost everyone entering reviews for me is different from me in this fundamental way. Straight associates are reviewed almost entirely by straight lawyers, but LGBTQ associates are also reviewed almost exclusively by straight lawyers. These reviewers are then asked to converge into a computer system and give their opinions. It is natural to fear this process.


But, each year, to my surprise a strange thing happens. I resent and worry about the process, feel vulnerable, brace myself for the worst outcome, and with amazed relief, each time the review comes back positive. The annual review feels to me like a six-month wait for a cancer screening. My mind braces for discrimination and strangely, like a tornado warning, it leaves in silence without destruction. Each year I tell myself next fall will be different and each year the problem is back.


I know as a diverse associate, this annual feeling of powerlessness adds to the heavy workload and stress facing you. Why do I fear these reviews so damn much? My experience shows me that it makes no sense. And yet, my mind inevitably goes directly to imagining the worst possible outcome.


Unlike work criticism, discrimination hurts on a much deeper level. It does so for a simple reason: discrimination attacks who you are and not what you do. It chips away the fabric of your inner self. The same way you cannot force another to fall in love with you, it is impossible to fix any problem at work based on bias, discrimination or personal animus. If your work was shoddy or rushed, you know the problem and can fix it. Discrimination or bias is a different beast.


Diverse attorneys must triage any criticism. They ask themselves, “Is this poor, fixable performance or bias?” I won’t lie, the months before my annual review, I tend to slide more things into the “bias” column than the “poor performance” category. Then I put names to my fear. Let’s not kid ourselves, I won’t pretend to fix this problem, the world is what it is and honestly these odds are what they are. But, at a minimum, what we can do is see this problem as it approaches. At my first firm, the review came in November, and at the second it took place in February. Each time, I would start being rather insecure 2-3 months before the review. This feeling actually got better weeks before the results. What you need to do is to perceive and quantify the unease you’re experiencing so you can better name it and manage it. I had a calendar and I would put a red marker on the day of the review.


So next time you get nervous, anxious, and feel like you are frustrated by negative feedback, ask yourself what time of year it is. If you are close to your review, I have a little tip. I love the real Starbucks coffee from across the street—its half-decaf triple lattes, the non-fat kind. The drink is nothing short of $6, which I reserve for my special occasions. So, in the two months leading up to my review, each time that I get something that sends me to a bad place I simply grab my coat and walk to Starbucks without my cell phone. Don’t bring the emails along. Give this 30 minutes, that’s all.

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

An LGBTQ Associate’s Guide to Succeeding in a Large Firm

Alain VilleneuveBy Alain Villeneuve

Chapter 1: The Dreaded Golf Outing

“Alain, we need you. As a new partner, the IP Associates will only come if you do. They like you… for some reason,” joked the head of the IP Group. He knew emotions worked on me every time. Golf, now that hit a nerve.

I had never travelled from Chicago to Indiana and much less entered a guarded community where each suburban house paraded a golf cart. Unsurprisingly, most straight partners bowed out after learning I had agreed to attend for the sole benefit of our eclectic group of associates. Bob, the head of IP, knew one thing too well about the LGBTQ hospitality. If I was there, everyone, even our most reclusive, would be entertained and that mattered to him.

Associates today are all equally unique. Thanks to the millennials, I lost any power to define anyone using sexual orientation, gender or even color. Some skydive, while others master in darkness Call of Duty. Frankly speaking, today, everyone is shockingly different physically, mentally, ethically, or sociologically. There is no mold, no normal. I am not surprised to read that few of them enjoy hitting the proverbial Links, but those who do excel at it.

As a true victim of fashion, my first obstacle was the dress code. I own no shoes ready to be ‘greenified’ by a fresh cut lawn. My legs refuse to wear any pair of shorts dropping to my knees and I simply cannot wear a single color t-shirt. Being outside in the sun means to this queen wearing something tight, colorful and breezy. But, I was a partner and life had to go on and as others had cancelled, I was all there was left and I refused to let Bob regret his decision to invite me. Guess what, for $39.99, I dressed myself from head to toe. The next week, I donated these clothes to the local charity.

Between you and me, my first real shock of the day came on the first tee. I saw my seven classmates each amusingly fail miserably at securing a drive that even a grossly inebriated Tiger Woods could launch. There was no ‘clink’ or ‘snap’ in the silent fields but instead two dozen ‘wooshes’ by embarrassed players. As it turns out, I spent most of my teens hiding away from the jocks by being a caddy at the local golf club. As my hormones kicked in overdrive, I quickly stored those memories far away. Like riding a bicycle, to my surprise, golf cannot be forgotten so easily.

In my dreams, I stepped on the tee to be ridiculed. But instead, everyone unimpressed by their own performances was looking down at their shoes. The sound of the 300 meter drive was perfection in the silent morning. There was awe, shock, but more importantly relief in their eyes.

I tell this story not because I overcame something but quite the contrary. I am, to say it mildly, an insecure overachiever as are most in my community. I fear the images I play over and over in my head. In my little stupid mind, for several sleepless nights, I envisioned being ridiculed by foursomes of pro-golfers. Golf seriously was seriously not the point of the day.

I spent a wonderful day getting to know others as they transformed grass into brown and green Swiss cheese. Golf was the great equalizer in that no one, except the head of IP cared about or even counted strokes. One associate, Lucy, had a couple of great putts. Lucy hit one amazing ball out of the sand trap. Half way into the night, back at the club house where salads are roadkill to microwaved burgers, I finally understood law is like golf. When you begin, out of a hundred swings, a handful at best will feel good. The rest, you know, will suck. As you master this activity (because I can’t get myself to call this a sport), you feel better about a handful of swings, then a few more and so on. Even a pro golfer can be humbled as his ball hits water next to a beginner who manages across the distance. Law is quite similar. Even the best litigators will look at your work and once in a while, they will be amazed by an argument or two. With time, as you get better, more arguments will land, but the game is never about a single shot. A legal problem is not about one brilliant idea. It requires hard work, time and dedication.

But, let’s be honest. To this day I cringe each time I see on the firm’s website images of myself wearing khaki pants.

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