By M. Dru Levasseur, Deputy Program Officer of the National LGBT Bar
As the COVID-19 pandemic rattles the world economy, several law firms have begun cutting support staff or vastly reducing their billable hours. These initial cuts may be a sign of what’s to come during a potential post-pandemic economic downturn and have far-reaching implications for the most marginalized members of the legal profession, including LGBTQ+ folks. It’s more important than ever before to ensure workplaces are dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion given how the pandemic will disproportionately hurt the most marginalized of us.
Once law firms begin considering cuts, support staff will be the first to go. While attorneys may have the economic means to weather this storm, the same can not be said of all support staff. Furthermore, some firms have begun freezing new hires for both staff and attorneys and it remains unclear how soon these opportunities will return. LGBTQ+ people face higher rates of poverty on average and members of the LGBTQ+ community with lower incomes attempt suicide at higher rates. Furthermore, 29 states still lack explicit statewide protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, allowing for housing and employment discrimination to go relatively unchecked. Moreover, LGBTQ people are more likely than the average person to lack health insurance, have a higher rate of chronic illnesses, and are less likely to seek treatment from a doctor when they get sick, largely out of fear of discrimination; last June, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a proposed rule that would allow health care workers to refuse treatment to individuals on the basis of their religious faith. For those members of the LGBTQ+ community without access to significant savings, intergenerational wealth, and who must fight both a pandemic and discrimination, COVID-19 is a threat both to their health and their economic security.
Additionally, data suggests that the most marginalized employees will be disproportionately impacted by the upcoming cuts. Attorneys of color and female attorneys were more likely to be cut than their white or male counterparts during the 2008 recession. While data on LGBTQ+ attorneys is limited, we can expect that they too will be disproportionately impacted, as members of all these minority groups are frequently subject to unconscious bias. For example, LGBTQ+ attorneys may be assigned less work because most partners in the upper ranks of firms identify as cisgender heterosexual, and people tend to assign work to people who are similar to them. The stresses on firms created by COVID-19 will only highlight disparities between the work handed to more marginalized employees and their privileged counterparts even in the best of times. The staff who will be deemed essential in law firms will likely be attorneys with the privilege of working full-time and those who do not face unconscious bias, meaning LGBTQ+ folks and members of other marginalized communities (including those with disabilities) will face a greater risk of being laid off than others. Decisions on who to lay off must not be made in a vacuum but rather should take into account who is being disproportionately impacted by this crisis.
With the freezing of new hires and layoffs of support staff, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts also face the possibility of damage. It’s critical that law firms see diversity, equity, and inclusion work as being a very core value that enhances work productivity and success with clients, rather than as discretionary. Staff focused on maintaining diversity, equity, and inclusion are more necessary now than ever, and bring a crucial perspective on how to address the inequities that this pandemic will make clear. By including these staff in discussions on what parameters should be used to determine who to let go, firms may be able to avoid the loss in firm diversity that occurred following the 2008 recession. Furthermore, DEI staff will be essential to ensuring that the connection is still fostered in the workplace despite social isolation, which can be detrimental to those who already feel isolated in the workplace. Staff without expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts should take this opportunity to educate themselves on the unique challenges LGBTQ+ employees – especially those with an intersectional identity such as being a racial, ethnic, or religious minority, or with a disability – are facing, such as higher rates of mental illness, which can be exacerbated by social distancing.
Damage to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal profession is not inevitable. The time for your law firm, law school, or company to commit to and invest in lasting institutional change is now. For more information on how your law firm, company, or law school can obtain a certification in LGBTQ+ inclusion, check out our LGBTQ+ inclusion coaching and consulting program, Lavender Law 365®, at www.LavenderLaw365.org.