Lisa “Lee” A. Schreter is Co-Chair of OutWOMEN, Out Leadership’s talent accelerator engaging and celebrating LGBT+ women in business, and a member of Out Leadership’s Global Advisory Board.
She is also the co-chair of the Wage and Hour Practice Group of Littler, the world’s largest labor and employment firm, where she focuses on representing employers in complex class and collective actions involving overtime and other wage-related claims and helps employers to develop forward-thinking compliance measures that reduce wage and hour disputes and other employment-related issues.
In a 2016 interview with the Law Firm Leadership podcast, Lee noted: “I’ve lived diversity and inclusion… I hope that what I can do, as somebody who’s openly gay, is let people who are entering the legal profession understand that their sexual orientation and gender identity is no obstacle to a successful career in the legal profession.”
Can you talk about how you first realized that you were gay?
When I was six or seven, I knew I was different. I couldn’t have put a word to it, at the time, but I got a word for it from the nuns.
The nuns used to warn us about what they’d call special friendships, and there was always a negative connotation. The first time I heard a nun talk about it, I realized she was talking about me.
That’s the first time I became ashamed. It’s also the first time I thought that there was something wrong with me. It’s taken me years to work the Catholicism out of my system.
When did you first come out, and when did you come out at work?
The first time I came out was in 1977.
I remember the year precisely, because it was the summer Elvis Presley died and Star Wars came out.
I think, sometimes, that our allies believe coming out is a one-time event. That certainly has not been the case for me. I probably come out to somebody once or twice a week. Sometimes in the natural flow of conversation, and sometimes because I have to.
When I came out at work for the first time, it was in large part due to the efforts of one person, whose name is Jeff Mintz.
Jeff and his wife had, I think, suspected that I was gay for quite some time after I joined the law firm where he practiced. They had good friends who were gay. In any event, they started encouraging me to come to their home for dinner. And each time, Jeff pointedly said to me, “Please bring a friend, if you like.”
And I thought, “I’m not bringing a friend.” This was the early 90s. I had been deeply, deeply closeted up until that time. I was out to some people in law school, but it was a very select group.
I certainly had not been out to any of my prior employers. But by that point, my wife and I were together. We had been together 10 years.
So, while Jeff didn’t know this, the person he was inviting me to bring was my wife – well, at the time we weren’t married, but she was my significant other.
I didn’t take him up on the invitation until the year before I was up for partner. And then, when we finally did, Jeff spent a good part of the evening encouraging me to come out, more broadly, within our firm.
And that ultimately proved to be a real turning point in my life.
At the time, in the 1990s, there was still a great deal of open discrimination against gay people. I was really concerned that if I came out, that it might impact my chances of becoming a partner at that law firm. And that it could negatively impact my career.
My wife and I had just spent all of our savings on getting me to law school. Neither of us wanted to see that jeopardized.
But also, when you’re closeted, you aren’t really aware of the psychic toll it takes on you. And at the time, my wife was really separated from what I did 18 hours a day. She didn’t know the people I worked with. I couldn’t talk about my home life with people at work. And it was impacting our relationship, as you might expect.
When I talk about coming out, I talk about the way the closet imposes costs on people. The closet subtly underscores the idea there’s something wrong with the way you are.
And I’m really grateful to Jeff, and people like him, who helped create an environment that allowed people like me to come out at work. Because when I came out, my experience really changed. And each time I came out to someone and it was not catastrophic, it was an affirmation that I can be who I am, without fear. And that’s been really liberating.
How do you think being openly gay at work has influenced your leadership style?
It’s taught me to really consider people’s lives outside of work, and how that affects their performance. As leader, I want to make sure that I’m giving people the space that they need to be able to address their personal lives, and I want to stop and take a real personal interest in the people I work with.
Who are your role models?
I really admire people who are driven by the power of their convictions and who are able to overcome great obstacles to achieve their goals.
Someone who really inspires me, in my profession, is Ted Olson. He’s a Republican, and a lot of his law firm partners are conservative. But he was also one of the lawyers who took on the Proposition 8 case, Perry v Schwarzenegger. When he took that case, he was subject to a great deal of criticism. But he took the case, because he believed in it. He ended up being a tremendous advocate for our community, despite all the blowback he received. And I related to that, because it’s similar to what gay people go through.
In the same vein, I really deeply admire Jim Obergefell and Representative John Lewis. I’ve had the opportunity to meet Jim a few times, and I’m just blown away by his courage. And Rep. Lewis has stood up for causes that aren’t necessarily popular, but are right. He’s an eloquent spokesman and a real beacon for people who have suffered discrimination.
If you could have any job other than the one you have now, what would you do?
People laugh when I say this, but I would be an Egyptologist.
When I was a kid, I was fascinated with everything about ancient Egypt and Rome. I would have been an archeologist, but my father did not think it was a suitable profession.
The idea of digging in the sands to find ancient treasures really still holds some appeal.
If you could tell someone who just graduated from college one thing that you’ve learned, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to evolve. You may go to college with a particular career in mind, but you should not become so set in your ways that you’re locked into that direction, and you forego opportunities that may present themselves to take you in a different direction.
Can you tell me a story about a time that someone who was a mentor to you helped you take your next step?
When I was still in law school, I had the opportunity to work with a fabulous lawyer named Mary Ann Oakley. I learned a lot of things from her, but one thing really stands out in my memory.
Oftentimes, new lawyers, particularly litigators like myself, confuse being a zealous advocate with being a jerk. I had done that.
There was a plaintiffs’ lawyer, who was an adversary in a case, and we both knew Mary Ann. I got a call from Mary Ann, and she told me: “You only have one reputation, and it only takes one case to screw it up.”
I was mortified to get this call from her, but it taught me a very important lesson about reputation and about how you treat other people, whether they’re your coworker or opposing counsel.
What’s a great interview question that you’ve heard in your time interviewing people or being interviewed?
I was being interviewed by a client, and they asked me: “If I don’t hire you who would you recommend that we hire?”
I answered the question. I was later told that I was the only lawyer they spoke with who did. And they hired me.
Who is your most important ally?
My wife. I couldn’t do what I do without her. She supports me, she encourages me, she kicks me in the pants when I need to be kicked in the pants.
I have a story I tell about her, from when I was taking the bar exam. Of course, the bar exam is just an unpleasant experience for most people who take it. I don’t know anyone who comes out of the bar exam and says, “That was fun.”
I was taking the bar exam, and we, my wife and I, had spent a lot of money to send me to law school, and I was feeling the pressure.
And I called her during a break a bit panicked and said, “I think I’m going to flunk.”
I was expecting her to say, “It’s okay dear, it’s going to be fine.”
Instead, she said: “Get a grip. Go buy yourself a Coke, a real Coke, and go back in there, because you’re going to pass this exam.” I was mad at her, at the time, because I was hoping for some sympathy.
But my wife knows, better than anybody, what I need and when I need it. That’s why she’s my best ally.
Who is your LGBT+ hero?
When I need inspiration, I often turn to the words of Harvey Milk. When I need to laugh and think about who I am as a gay woman, I find the humor of Harvey Fierstein wonderful, and wry, and uplifting.
And oh, gosh, the people who have been named as plaintiffs in the equality lawsuits. Jim Obergefell, and Edie Windsor. They get no end of grief from people, and I so admire their fortitude.
And then also Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother. Every time I meet her, or hear her speak, I’m struck by her generosity. I always end up in tears listening to her. She’s a remarkable woman.
To be able to live with the loss of her son, and then to take on the burden of speaking about what she went through, it’s really an act of service.
She speaks about it as a mother, and I think people hear the truth of her emotional experience. It doesn’t matter what your political views are, I don’t think you can listen to her and disagree with what she’s saying. That makes her a powerful advocate for our community. There are good and bad things in the world. I think, too much these days, people make moral equivalencies. To my mind, there’s such a thing as right and wrong, and I think it’s clear in a lot of circumstances. She stands up for what’s right, and I respect that tremendously.
What was your first job?
Cutting lawns. I hated it. I learned a lot from it, too. I have to admit, but I hated cutting lawns.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
What’s your motto?
Fall down seven times, get up eight.
If you were planning a dinner party and you could invite any five people from history, who would they be and why?
I thought about this one a lot. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harvey Milk, Harvey Fierstein, and Winston Churchill.
I think that would be a fabulous dinner party. I probably would just sit there and not say a word.
If there was a movie about your life, do you know what the opening song would be?
I Will Survive.
What are the six things you could never live without?
My wife, a good book, the love of my friends, a challenging career, and the ability to face life and its challenges.
what are the three books that you would take with you to a desert island?
You know, my wife would tell you I’ve got books all over the house, so narrowing it down to just three was really hard. I would always have a book of poetry with me, and I love Billy Collins. My favorite book of his poems is Sailing Alone Around the Room.
There is a series of books that were written in the 70s and 80s, by two historians, called The Story of Civilization. It has eight or nine volumes to it. Of those volumes, I probably would take The Age of Napoleon. And then Dune, by Frank Herbert. I love that book.