As Philadelphia’s LGBTQ Bar Association evolves, mentorship becomes a focal point

A group of people stands while holding drinks and plates of food.
Incoming mentors and mentees at a recent Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association event.

Liz Weissert, an attorney with a strong interest in supporting the next generation of lawyers, is the new president of the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association. Weissert works at Ballard Spahr, a national firm headquartered in Philadelphia, where she is a commercial litigator focusing on antitrust and competition law. She previously served as a co-leader of the firm’s employee resource group for LGBTQ+ people and stepped out of the position to focus on this role.

Weissert continues to serve on the board of Equality Forum, an organization that records LGBTQ+ history and implements programming during LGBTQ+ History Month to make that information accessible to schools, institutions and the public.

“I think it’s really important for us to learn about our history because it’s not taught in a lot of schools. In fact, it’s being actively suppressed,” she said. “So it’s really important to me to be a part of an organization where we’re recognizing and celebrating that history.”

The Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association is part of history in its own right. Founded in 1986, it was originally known as Philadelphia Attorneys for Human Rights — an advocacy group that worked on behalf of the queer community during the AIDS crisis.

“It’s undergone a lot of evolution since then,” Weissert said. Today, it continues to connect LGBTQ+ members of the legal community with each other and the LGBTQ+ community at large.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve really been trying to grow the organization and want to continue to build and expand our reach,” she said, explaining that the association wants to collaborate more with lawyers and firms in the tri-state area who utilize Philadelphia as a hub. 

The association also launched a new committee this year — the Community Engagement Committee, which helps members build relationships and familiarity with queer-centered organizations throughout the city. One of the ways the association is doing that right now is by helping people prepare for the election — making sure LGBTQ+ people are registered to vote and know to exercise that right.

“One thing that’s also important to me in continuing to build and expand the organization is making sure I have a plan for who comes next,” Weissert added, underlining that she hopes to empower people with more diverse experiences to step into leadership. “That is my strongest focus going in.”

“We’re really excited about our mentorship program,” she explained. “We did a lot of work last year to get our law student members involved, so that’s something we’re continuing to do — building a pipeline… You’re engaged as a law student, you become an attorney in Philadelphia, you can get involved in our organization — join a committee, and eventually become a leader in the organization.”

The organization groups “two or three law student mentees and two or three lawyers who are providing mentorship and advice,” she said, explaining that these relationships are crucial as those students begin to navigate their identities within the legal profession.

“I really appreciated when I was a law student and when I started out as a young lawyer in my firm having queer mentors there to support me and answer my questions and to be my cheerleader,” she said.

“I think the legal profession — it can be very slow to change and there are fewer diverse people in the legal profession than in some other areas,” she said. “So I think it’s really important to serve as a role model for others, to diversify the profession and to be a clear voice in the room where decisions are being made, and then to turn around and support other young queer legal professionals.”

“Meeting attorneys who are diverse is very hard outside of these organizations,” said Taylor Williams, who is a second year corporate law associate at Troutman Pepper and is involved in both the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Bar Association and the Barristers Association of Philadelphia, an organization that supports Black lawyers. “There’s just not a lot of us.”

According to research published by the American Bar Association Journal, a strong majority — over 80% (and potentially more) — of law firm equity partners are white and male, and less than 4% are estimated to be LGBTQ+ people. The study noted that LGBTQ+ attorneys were less likely to be hired than non-queer counterparts, and most firms did not have even a single attorney who identified as LGBTQ+. Only up to 4% of LGBTQ+ people were found to be associates at law firms of all sizes.

“This job can be very hard, and sometimes it’s just nice to get coffee with or lean on someone who knows the depths of who you are — not just the surface level,” Williams said, explaining that connecting with other LGBTQ+ people can help people with more diverse experiences consider aspects of their professional lives that other people wouldn’t necessarily understand.

That includes talking about things like how to navigate discrimination, how to begin family planning and understand parental leave, which firms offer trans-affirming insurance policies, and other aspects of their lives that are adjacent to their professional worlds and are important to consider as they pursue their careers.

This is the first year Williams is participating in the association’s mentorship program. Her mentees are worried about their grades and landing jobs, so Williams practices interviews with them and offers feedback. Some of that guidance also includes teaching them how to leverage their diverse experiences and identities without letting potential employers tokenize them for it.

Her other goal is to create a safe space for them to talk about their challenges. For instance, she noted that some queer people have additional experiences of marginalization that make it more difficult to excel in school or impossible to accept volunteer roles and low-paying internships. This can include financial hardships and other issues.

Williams said it’s hard to find support when power dynamics are skewed — that professional relationships aren’t often close enough to discuss personal struggles and many people worry that opening up will change the way they’re perceived by superiors. The mentorship program offers an opportunity to cultivate a space that recognizes people’s complexities.

“I sometimes don’t think we do a good enough job focusing on the holistic person, and I think if we focus more on that in mentorship there will be an additional outlet, a resource, someone to reach out to,” she underlined. “I’d like to have that outlet for other people who are just quietly suffering.”

She hopes the Philadelphia LGBTQ+ Bar Association can become more accessible to students and young people in the industry and begin providing more tangible resources to them.

Williams distinguished the way people show up for each other professionally, naming two distinct relationship roles — mentors and sponsors — which she believes function in different ways. Sponsors are people who are in a leadership position that can help someone move forward in their careers whereas mentors can offer emotional support, recommend resources, and help people cope with their challenges.

“A mentor is someone who’s just like pouring into you, but a sponsor is someone who’s going out into the world and kind of advocating for you,” she explained.

“You really do need sponsors — because when you mentor, it’s like you’re sitting down with someone, you’re pouring in, you’re answering their questions, you’re creating a safe space,” Williams said. “But then they have to go in the room with someone else and be on display and perform, put on a show. If you’re also in that position where you could go in with them — or you have some leverage, you can advocate — you should also do that.”

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