In recognition of Pride Month, McCarter litigation partner Natalie Watson shared some of her thoughts and experiences about LGBTQIA issues. Below are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Can you talk about your journey as an out gay lawyer?
NW: There’s been quite a lot of change since I entered the field. First off, with the backdrop of society at large at the time that I started law school, I didn’t think that I’d be able to get married legally. I also knew that I could be targeted for being gay. I was told by an employment counselor [while I was] in law school that when applying for jobs, I should not be out in any way during interviews or on my resume; that there was no way that I would be hired by any law firm if I were out; and that it was perfectly fine for folks to discriminate against me based on my sexual orientation. My advisors at Rutgers were incredibly supportive, but knowing that folks in the recruiting field thought that I might be penalized if someone found out that I was in a same sex relationship was sobering.
I moved here from San Francisco to attend law school — Rutgers Newark in 2001. During that window I was out and very comfortable with who I was personally, but I was not out professionally at all. I wasn’t out beyond close personal friends outside of work and that was very much because of my concerns about being targeted.
So you flash ahead now and the fact that I am able to be out and am out in the community is really an indicator of how society has changed and become more inclusive and also having the benefit of knowing about the protections for LGBT folks in the community generally, especially in a state like New Jersey. I would be remiss, though, if I did not say one important thing.
[Because of what the career counselor told me before I started at McCarter], I made a very significant attempt to conceal my personal life …. during my summer [at McCarter in] 2003, I was prepared to keep my mouth zipped about my sexual orientation through the entire application process and summer. That was a struggle for me. There’s pressure in people talking about what they are doing on the weekends when you cannot say who your spouse is. I was intentionally trying to play the pronoun game and not be explicit about who I might be seeing.
But during one of our outings, to a Bruce Springsteen concert, I was sitting next to Joe Boccassini [then a junior partner and now our Managing Partner] and it just kind of came out organically because he was so friendly and welcoming. And by then, my perception of the firm was that it was welcoming place, regardless of what I may have been warned about by people who did not really know McCarter’s culture, and I ended up coming out to my colleagues. They were so supportive and inclusive that from then on I had no issue being myself at the firm.
That may not seem like a lot. People who have not had to be closeted may wonder why that’s something that’s so important and so special. Having to expend all of that energy to hide who you really are when everyone else doesn’t have to do that is a big thing and it makes a difficult job that much harder. Having that community here at McCarter made all the difference to me in being able to come out.
Q: As a member of the Firm’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, what more should we be doing in the legal profession to recognize individuals in an equitable way?
NW: I wish I had all the answers. First and foremost, we need to make sure that there is implicit bias training on a regular basis for everyone. It allows us all, then, myself included, to reflect on the internalized pre-conceived notions of things and be able to address those and making the community a bit little more friendly. So making sure you’re not asking the kinds of questions that put people off and make their day to day harder.
Constantly reevaluating how assignments are given and how we can sponsor people instead of just mentoring them so making sure that we are not just hanging out with the people who are most like us, making sure we are going out of our way and to be inclusive and to add folks in. That is really the key. When we do that like at McCarter where we’ve had the sponsorship program, we’ve seen that not only is [that approach] beneficial in terms of promoting DEI issues, but it also positively impacts the bottom line because you have people who are now fully utilized, who are the best at what they do and are able to contribute in a full way.
As always, we need to continue to reevaluate how we promote and compensate people because I know that with concepts of origination and things like that it can sometimes inadvertently privilege certain groups over others and so it’s helpful, as we do at McCarter, to constantly reevaluate and check in to make sure we are being equitable in terms of pay and advancement opportunities. But it’s about constantly checking-in, being willing to think outside the box. That’s one thing that’s worked very well at McCarter. I’m not sure if it has panned out across the legal profession as a whole, though.
Q: Who do you admire either in the LGBTQIA community or outside of it that you think has really been a good voice on these issues?
NW: I’m going to speak more collectively rather than identify a single person. I think that queer communities of color that have been consistently pushing for equality for everyone, in an intersectional way, for everybody. Speaking quite frankly [they have been doing that] in a way that cis white LGBT community members such as myself have not always done. I think it is critical and important to recognize those leaders and that they really are who we need to be looking to in this time period because sometimes we think we can swoop in and fix things and we want to be the hero… when there already have been people who have been boots on the ground consistently addressing and fighting for these issues since the 50s, particularly in communities of color and queer communities of color. We really need to look to and honor those leaders.
Those at larger law firms also need to center work in a way that support communities and supplements what they have been doing, instead of acting like we are parachuting in with all of the answers. To take just one example, we work with Garden State Equality and others to provide pro bono counsel to transgender individuals seeking a name change through the legal process. We are so happy to work with Garden State Equality to build this project and to try to help them expand their reach and the services they are able to provide to people statewide. It was important to us to play that supporting role and take direction from them about what services were needed, so that we are amplifying the work they’ve been doing for so long. I’m very proud of that. So I know that’s not a specific person to recognize, but right now the people that are anonymous and that have been working so diligently over decades, they’re the ones we really need to be turning to and focusing on and celebrating.
Q: For young attorneys coming into the field right now and questioning whether they will be accepted professionally as LGBTQIA individuals and professionals, what would you say to them?
NW: You are coming up at a time very different from mine. When I was coming up, everyone loved to give me advice, including the advice to stay in the closet and to conform as much as possible. Based on my experience, though, the one piece of advice I would give is, don’t let some stodgy old lesbian like myself dictate what you think you should do or not do. People might tell you to dress a certain way or present a certain way, but if that’s not right for you, don’t do it. And don’t let my or anyone else’s experiences dictate what you think you should do today. From what I’ve seen with the folks coming up, the work ethic is there, and also they have a dedication to creating an inclusive culture that’s better for all of us and that ultimately will be better for our companies, too. It is, without a doubt, a scary time, with rights potentially poised to be rolled back and hate crimes at a record high. I am not going to pretend that things are not stressful or difficult. But I have such optimism about the energy and the uncompromising integrity of those coming up in the community today. I think the appreciation for and understanding of intersectionality will really help pave the way for something better. So find a place where you can feel safe and be yourself, free from micro aggressions and in a culture that respects you for you. Don’t settle.
I’m also happy to talk more about my experiences and to share and brainstorm about stuff in a confidential capacity if they want to. You should feel welcomed and included. I see more and more that the expectation is that people will be welcomed and accepted, but I also know sadly it’s not the reality everywhere. Anything I can do to help make your journey a little easier is something that I want to do and am committed to.