Recently, I had the opportunity to attend Lavender Law, the National LGBT Bar Association’s annual conference. My favorite session over the two-day conference was a panel of transgender lawyers sharing their experiences about transitioning years into their careers.
The Urgency of Transitioning
The moderator of the panel who had transitioned just a year ago in mid-2017 started off the conversation by putting it bluntly: “For me, it was transition or die — by gun, bottle or needle.” Two of the panelists were partners in their law firms and had transitioned more than five years ago. They shared how their firms were incredibly supportive in their journey.
Need for Planning and Partnership
All of the panelists spoke about the need to plan for their transition in partnership with their law firm. One panelist, who transitioned in 2009, understood that she was not protected as an equity partner, even though the firm was an equal opportunity employer with a transgender policy; she could be voted out by the partnership. In response to this realization, she put a team together of her therapist and her own employment lawyer to help her navigate the planning process. To get the ball rolling, she knew she had to address two prominent needs: i) the need for a personal deadline for communication with the managing partner and the management committee; and ii) the need to set up lunch dates with key clients to tell them about her decision and to ask if it would be a problem to continue their business relationship.
When one partner commented that he had no idea that the managing partner had this struggle, she responded: “Nothing about me has changed. What you know about me has changed.”
Another panelist — the managing partner of her small law firm — told her firm’s equity partners 18 months in advance. When one partner commented that he had no idea that the managing partner had this struggle, she responded: “Nothing about me has changed. What you know about me has changed.” The managing partner also discussed the need to share her decision with opposing counsel and judges for existing cases right before the deadline
Other panelists talked about the need to develop a plan in collaboration with the law firm. One of the panelists employed in big law described how she was the first person at her law firm to make the decision to transition. The panelist worked with the chief of human resources to put together a multi-dimensional communications plan. Not only was there a written statement prepared for the media, but there were also talking points and frequently asked questions put together for the managing partner and the practice leader.
One lesson learned from the experience was the need for talking points for leaders and lawyers in other offices around the country because on the day the announcement was made about the panelist’s transition, clients of the firm were calling attorneys at other offices.
Mixed Results on Business Development
The impact on business development was mixed among the panelists. Two of the panelists who had transitioned more than five years ago indicated that their ability to bring in business had increased. In one case almost a decade after her decision, one panelist said that her billable hours and collections were higher.
For the panelist who had transitioned in 2017, she has ensured that she remains visible, speaking and writing, despite the difficulties of developing business. She is devoted to traveling and sharing her story, and she’s courageously 100% committed to helping others feel comfortable.
In moments of discomfort she felt because of the reaction from others, she talked about using humor to break up the moment to disarm people. She frequently refers to the fact that she is 100% the same person, with (in her words) “better hair and make-up.”
When asked the question how can allies help, panelists indicated that providing platforms for transgender colleagues to share their stories and their expertise was number one way allies can help ease this transition. In general, all panelists emphasized the point that all people should approach questions about the transitioning lawyer’s experience as a friend and colleague… and to provide active support during their journey.