So, What Has Big Law Got Against LGBT and Disabled Lawyers?

The American Bar Association (ABA) issued a press release May 10, 2017 announcing what it says is a “first of its kind” study investigating the biases faced by LGBT+ and disabled lawyers in the legal profession (I say it’s the legal industry). The Study will implement strategies to overcome those biases. Sounds ambitious.

The release says that although the number of openly LGBT+ lawyers has doubled over the last 10 years, they are more likely than other legal professionals to be employed by public interest organizations than by law firms. And lawyers who identify as disabled are less likely to be employed at all than women, minorities or graduates identifying as LGBT+. These are terrible metrics.

The Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University will perform the study. One wonders what it will identify as the causes as bars to entry into private firms. As far as LGBT+ applicants go, sexual orientation is not a per se protected status under federal employment law, but depending on the circumstances, an employer’s biases about gender norms can trigger a protection. Increasingly, state and local jurisdictions do protect orientation. Disability is of course protected. Do law firms still worry that clients won’t want to have their matters staffed by lawyers whom they believe don’t fit a certain mold, or other outdated notions? Federal case law is clear that client preferences are not a basis upon which an employer may rely to discriminate against an employee.

For example, it would not be permissible to remove a female account manager from an account just because the customer did not like working with women. The same rationale applies equally to LGBT+ and disabled applicants for employment: applicants cannot be denied employment for fear that clients won’t like “their kind,” when they are in a protected status.

Diversity matters to people and companies for different reasons, some genuine and some less so. The study will likely identify strategies that are already being employed by the more enlightened among corporate America, acknowledging that a diverse workforce is healthy and preferred by clients and customers. Employing diverse applicants is not only legally required in most cases, it’s also good business. And to be fair to law firms, they have had initiatives in place for a while now that have focused on race and gender. Kudos to the ABA to identify a need to broaden the scope of diversity yet again.

The author, Peter Rutledge, is an Employment Lawyer and Partner at Rutledge Law, Greenville, SC. You can contact him via these channels:
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…it would not be permissible to remove a female account manager from an account just because the customer did not like working with women. The same rationale applies equally to LGBT+ and disabled applicants for employment: applicants cannot be denied employment for fear that clients won’t like “their kind,” when they are in a protected status.
–Peter Rutledge, Rutledge Law