Several years ago, I spoke with the parent of a child with high-functioning anxiety, asking for their advice. They prefaced their advice with this wise piece of information. They told me that if you know one person who is X, you know one person who is X. That brilliant piece of advice crosses over to many areas where one wants to learn more and be supportive of our friends and colleagues. As we work towards providing more inclusive environments, we must be conscious that if we are only referencing a small number of members of that community, we are missing out on the opportunity to address the needs of the very people we hope to include.
Further, as allies and colleagues, we also can’t begin to address the needs of any particular community without reaching out for their input. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is, “Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice. And belonging is having that voice be heard.” We need to actively listen to the voices of the people we want to include in order to meet their needs. We must keep that mind when working to create a more inclusive law practice for members of the LGBTQ community.
If you ask one member of the LGBTQ community what an inclusive law practice means to them, you will only get that one person’s perspective. That person can’t possibly be expected to speak for all the people of their community. In preparation for this article, I reached out to several members of the LGBTQ community and their allies for their thoughts and insights regarding what an inclusive law firm means to them. I have included attorneys, paralegals, potential clients, and a web designer whose focus is on serving the legal community. The people I spoke with only represent a portion of the gender spectrum. I did not hear back from anyone who identifies as non-binary. The people who talked with me for this article identify as a gay male sole practitioner, a gay male Latino activist, a disability rights attorney and a transgender paralegal. I also engaged in conversation with a straight female web designer who specializes in web design for law firms. I asked them to either refer to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Inclusion Ally Toolkit and/or address the following questions: What does an inclusive LGBTQ law practice mean to you? How do you address intake forms? Pronouns? Bathrooms? Marketing? Hiring? Your website?
This article is intended to offer an introduction to LGBTQ/gender inclusion. Every firm and client is at a different stage of needs/wants regarding inclusion. A good reference tool is the ABA’s toolkit referenced above. Within the toolkit, you will find the Best Practices Guide.
The toolkit addresses both internal and external best practices for promoting LGBTQ diversity. The Best Practices Guide is broken down into three main sections, external best practices, internal best practices, and compensation and benefits best practices. External best practices include firm participation in the LGBTQ community; LGBTQ-related marketing and press; client-directed activities; and legal advocacy. Internal best practices include leadership commitment, communication and resources; culture, inclusion and support; training and development; and recruitment and support. Compensation and benefits best practices include literature that is inclusive to LGBTQ employees and their families. Other good resources are national and local LGBTQ organizations. I sent the link to the toolkit to a member of the LGBTQ community who could be viewed as a potential client. They said “the materials that are on the program website are fantastic. They are detailed to the point of me wanting to download them for myself.” The transgender paralegal did voice some concerns that the toolkit needed updating, especially the section on terminology. As I address below, terminology is evolving. Also, it is important to tailor your terminology to the clientele/employees you wish to attract to your business. The web page designer has been designing web pages for law firms for more than 10 years. The designer felt that the toolkit set the right tone. They noted that the use of rainbow was nice without going too wild. Regarding tips on best practices for web design the designer recommended the following link: https://axesslab.com/lgbtq-inclusive-web-design/
One way to make anyone feel included is to address them as they wish to be addressed. In the transgender and genderqueer community, this is considered a basic question, and including it on your intake form will not only make it clear to your LGBTQ employees/clients that you want to be sensitive to their identity issues but may also avoid an awkward moment when you use a pronoun to refer to an employee/client and the employee/client feels a need to correct you. Here is an example of what this question might look like:
What pronouns do you prefer that we use when talking about you? (check all that apply)
Other, please specify:
When you ask this question, you may sometimes receive an unexpected answer. Try not to show your surprise or respond in a way that could make your employee/client think that you disapprove of or are uncomfortable with the answer. If you need more information, feel free to continue questioning in a neutral, non-judgmental fashion. If you make a mistake, apologize, correct yourself and move on. The most commonly used pronouns include She/Her/Hers; He/Him/His; They/Them/Theirs, and others. A related concept is the use of gender-neutral language. Whenever possible, try to make your forms and communication gender-neutral.
The web page designer stated it is becoming more common to give users an option to list their identity rather than check a box. For example, “I identify as (blank)” rather than “I am female ( ), male ( ), or other ( ).” While “other” is okay, it is still putting people in a category that may not work for them. Facebook, for example, is trying some new things like gender identity tags. This would come in handy if you want to send someone a message and not have the only options be female/male.
The sole practitioner stated “in our email signatures and business cards, we have our preferred pronouns listed. When communicating with prospective and current clients, we do not assume gender identification (whether binary or non-binary). We take people as they are. We believe in not just inclusion, and equity, but the respect we all deserve as beautiful, earthly creatures. By premising our firm on hope and love and talking to people not down to them, our authenticity serves as a client reminder that their authenticity, however expressed, will be well received back.”
Remember, if you know one person who is X, you know one person who is X. This is especially true regarding the ongoing discussion about when/how to address pronouns. While some people appreciate that this is being addressed, others would rather be addressed as they present. The bottom line is to be responsive to everyone. Offer training/links to websites to your staff, but remember that this is an evolving area.
Whenever possible, best practices are gender-neutral bathrooms. Otherwise, allow people to choose the bathroom they feel most comfortable using. Be respectful with your bathroom signage. This is a good area to provide training to your staff if need be.
The sole practitioner added valuable insight regarding bathrooms. “Our office building, where our suite is, does not have one gender-neutral bathroom, even though they do have several single-use bathrooms that could easily be utilized as such. A few months ago, our firm joined forces with a psychologist’s office in our building (with shared values) and presented a formal proposal to management requesting that the building make necessary bathroom labeling and access changes. We are going to stick to these efforts, especially since we both have clients who identify as trans or non-binary. We believe this is an extremely reasonable request that should not fall to the wayside/bottom of their list.”
The web page designer stated “the images on web pages are very important. The more diverse images in your marketing streams, the better. The tricky part is to find quality images. The link above has some good sources.”
The sole practitioner offered the following insights regarding what having an inclusive LGBTQ law practice means to them. “Having an inclusive LGBTQ law practice means not only affirmatively letting the public know that all are welcome, but practicing it as well. In addition to being a benefit company (practicing the triple bottom line of profit, planet and people), we make sure that our services are accessible. Our company takes a stand on social justice issues, including but not limited to gay and trans rights. This stand is represented in the copy and content on both our website and social media profiles and posts. Both the owner/principal attorney (self) and one of our two of counsel attorneys identify as LGBTQ. Our other of counsel attorney and our office manager are strong allies. Numerous questions during the hiring process aren’t just about expertise and legal experience, but about civic involvement and level of alignment with the firm’s core values.”
I asked the sole practitioner what things turn you off/concern you when folks are attempting to claim that their law firm/business is inclusive (but have missed the mark)?
“When I hear that someone talked to their client 80% about what it is like to be trans and 20% about their legal issue. While we can learn and grow from clients who are different, on a daily basis they have to explain who they are. They do not need that from an attorney. Granted, the topic may/can come up and that’s fine. The focus of the attorney needs to remain on providing access, resources, knowledge, and furtherance.
“I’m put off by firms that offer legal services to the gay community and use crappy gay stock photos and clichéd expressions to try to close the deal. If you want to have gay clientele, meet people everywhere and some will be gay. Sponsor, go to and talk to people at gay events. Throwing up a pride or trans flag on your website does not by itself, do anything good for you, me or diversity. It must be paired with thoughtful and intentional relationship and trust-building.
“Firms and frankly all companies miss the mark when they think they know what people need. And then, in essence, do more assuming and telling than listening and presenting. We are taught the golden rule, which is, ’Do onto others as you would have done unto you.’
‘While this is a ubiquitous cliché premised on a positive moral compass, what if what the other person wants or needs is something different than what you want or need, or different from what you assume they need? We need to instead ask people what they need or questions like, ’Do these two options work for you and why or why not?’ We need to consider whether a person feels heard (both figuratively and literally) and how best to act based on our interactions. This deeper level of reflective listening results in a more genuine representation of the served population.”
If you want to be more inclusive, include the group of people you want to include at every stage of planning where possible. If you aren’t engaging in hiring, marketing and advocacy for a particular group, they are not going to feel included. Remember that it is important to reach out to different demographics within the group you want to include to best represent and include them. Inclusion isn’t a one and done deal. The needs of your clients, employees, and firm will evolve, and your plans to include diverse communities should also evolve.
About the Author
Lori Hymowitz is an attorney with Stolle Berne in Portland, OR. Contact Lori on Twitter @HymowitzL.