By Tina Vasquez

In a piece written for Diversity is Natural, a website dedicated to diversity-related topics in the legal profession, lawyer Irene M. Recio, former board member of the National LGBT Bar Foundation, contends that the legal profession has made tremendous strides for the LGBTQ community in the past 15 years. By working with the straight community on issues such as marriage-neutral language in internal and external documents and equitable compensation for LGBTQ attorneys seeking domestic-partner benefits, Recio also believes that great progress has been made in improving the working environments for LGBTQ members in the legal profession, but there are still many challenges ahead.

“Historically, diversity committees in major law firms have focused their efforts on hiring attorneys from many varied backgrounds,” Recio wrote. “But recruitment of LGBT attorneys has been extremely challenging because LGBTQ attorneys do not wear their diversity on their sleeves.”

In facing the challenge head-on, Recio recommends that legal employers pursue different avenues of communication and adopt a more personal, grassroots approach. “For example, by getting involved with LGBTQ student law groups—i.e., speaking on panels and attending networking events—firms can begin a dialogue with LGBTQ individuals early on while also sending a message that it is okay for the individuals to be themselves,” Recio said.

Clear-Cut Results

For nine years now the Human Rights Campaign‘s (HRC) Corporate Equality Index (CEI) has made the results of diversity efforts at law firms more clear-cut. By grading American workplaces based on their inclusion and treatment of LGBTQ workers, the HRC has given the public something more tangible than a firm’s lip service. Along with major corporations, law firms are graded on a scale of 1-100, with a 100 signifying a firm’s commitment to 40 specific policies and practices covering nearly every aspect of employment for LGBT workers – from

pension benefits to gender transition guidelines to supplier diversity.

Let’s take a look at how three firms cracked the 100 rating on the 2011 CEI.

Crowell & Moring

Crowell & Moring has received a 90-100 rating on the CEI for the past two years because this international law firm considers diversity to be one of its core values and they approach it holistically. The firm views diversity as encompassing race, sex, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression and their commitment to diversity extends to all facets of firm life, including recruiting, retention, and professional development, as well as outreach to the community and the legal profession.

The firm’s lawyers are active in a number of affinity bars, including GAYLAW and the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. Crowell & Moring attorney Loraine B. Halloway also currently holds a position as operating committee member of the Whitman Walker Clinic’s Legal Services Program, which provides a wide range of pro bono legal services for those living with HIV/AIDS. The firm is also a long time attendee of the Lavender Law Conference, where Crowell & Moring recruits some of the best and brightest LGBTQ attorneys during the Conference’s career fair.

According to Monica Parham, Crowell & Moring’s Diversity Counsel, the firm’s consistently high CEI rating illustrates their commitment to diversity and inclusiveness not just for their attorneys, but for the firm as a whole and the communities it serves.

“We didn’t get involved in these issues because it was fashionable,” Parham said. “We’ve offered same sex benefits to our employees since the early 1990s. One of our biggest drivers is not just the LGBTQ community, but its allies as well. With any civil rights issues, you can’t affect change by only focusing on the people immediately impacted. Our policies and practices deal with everybody and they are long-standing, community wide, and broadly applied.”

Morgan Lewis

This is the second year Morgan Lewis has received a 100 on the HRC’s CEI and the firm’s head of diversity, Ara Tucker, is responsible for coordinating and supervising the execution of the firm’s diversity initiatives while working with the chair of the firm, the Management Committee, the Diversity Committee, the legal personnel partner, office managing partners, and practice group leaders. Together, Tucker and her team develop initiatives and diversity strategies, ensuring that the director of diversity meets regularly with attorneys and staff throughout the firm—including focused discussions with LGBTQ attorneys to generate ideas and to keep everyone informed of the firm’s activities and goals. Lawyers and staff also participate in and/or sponsor recruitment events for The National Lesbian and Gay Law Association

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

Ranked as one of the largest law firms in the nation, Akin Gump has maintained a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusiveness at all levels. The firm maintains a two-tiered Diversity Committee system, with both a firm wide committee and local office committees. The firm wide committee is chaired by Nancy Chung and features openly gay attorneys working with the firm on LGBTQ initiatives.

Akin Gump was one of the first firms to develop domestic partner benefits program before such programs became common. LGBT partners also regularly meet to discuss mentoring, leadership and networking issues and have instituted an informal network for LGBTQ lawyers to mentor associates, hold leadership positions in the firm, and participate actively in recruiting activities.