Transgender attorney: Law firm 'walking the walk' on diversity

Laura Newpoff
Sam Brinker, who transitioned to male before he joined the firm, is founder of Dinsmore & Shohl's LGBTQ affinity group.

In 2014 Sam Brinker was a third-year law student at the University of Dayton School of Law who joined Dinsmore & Shohl’s Dayton and Cincinnati offices as a summer associate. Brinker, who then had a different name, presented as a female. After that summer stint, Brinker accepted an offer to join the firm full-time after graduation in 2015. During the year in between, Brinker transitioned from female to male and thought it would be a good idea to talk with his mentor, Dinsmore Diversity Chair Marty Dunn, before his first day of work.  

“I told Marty that I identify as transgender and I wanted to talk about what that was going to look like when I come to the firm in the fall,” Brinker recalls. “Marty says, ‘Great, let’s get lunch and talk.’ He didn’t even flinch. I remember when we met for lunch it was a lot more of me talking and Marty listening. When you’re talking about someone’s transition, it tends to be really important for the person who is not transitioning to listen, and Marty did just that.” 

Brinker, who joined the firm’s Columbus office in 2017, continues to build his career at Dinsmore, where he focuses on real estate law. He’s also played a key role in helping the firm establish an affinity group for LGBTQ employees and their allies. “In Law & Equity” works to make sure members of the LGBTQ community are recognized and supported at the firm and are able to have the resources they need to support causes they care about in the community. Dinsmore also has a diversity committee and affinity groups for women, minorities and a career advancement program geared toward supporting diverse associates. 

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The efforts led to Dinsmore being recognized as a top performer at last year’s Leadership Council on Legal Diversity annual meeting in Washington, D.C. It marked the second straight year the firm received the honor and the third time since 2015. Lawyers of Color also ranked the firm 17th nationally in its Black Student’s Guide to Law Schools and Firms and named Dunn to its 2019 Nation’s Best list. Women Inc. magazine has recognized Dinsmore as a top-100 law firm for women. Columbus Partner Christian Gonzalez was also elected executive officer of the Hispanic National Bar Association. 

Smooth transition 

According to the American Bar Association, the legal profession generally is perceived as lagging other professions and industries in the area of diversity and inclusion. A report from the National Association for Law Placement found in 2018, just 2.86 percent of attorneys at major law firms identified as part of the LGBTQ community.  

Dinsmore’s commitment to diversity made Brinker’s entry into the firm as a transgender man a smooth one. He’s had several mentors and has never felt the awkwardness of being unaccepted, he says. He refers to himself as a “person of considerable privilege” who has had an easier time making the transition than many others. As such, he’s become an outspoken advocate through his community work. Brinker is an ordained minister, a member of the LGBT Bar Association and a volunteer with Equitas Health Name and Gender Change clinics. He serves on the board of directors of Living with Change, a nonprofit that supports transgender youth and their families and is part of a partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Brinker also is one of the LGBT Bar Association’s “Best LGBTQ+ Lawyers Under 40.” 

“My story, my experience is so much less jagged than most other folks who are trans in the workplace,” Brinker says. “During that lunch with Marty, he made it very clear to me without any effort that there was no issue here. They were really excited I was coming to Dinsmore and I wouldn’t have to worry about anything relative to the transition. Marty said, ‘What can we do for you?’ It was all you could have asked for and it reaffirmed that this was the right place for me.” 

Dunn, who is a partner in the Cincinnati office, says in an email response to questions that he “knew for sure that the firm would be encouraging of Sam, but it was mostly about Sam and his mature self-awareness and determination. 

“Sam completed a record number of summer associate assignments, at least for his class at the time, and he wouldn’t let me forget that,” Dunn writes. “Seriously, Sam’s focus is amazing, and I saw signs of that early on. He’s true to himself and introspective, yet he never loses sight of his critical role on the team and his desire to be supportive of others—in the firm and outside of the firm. I admired Sam’s courage and vanguard leadership at the time, but given the challenges facing our country at the moment, it’s a courage that I treasure even more as our outrage and pain lead us to vigorously fight discrimination, injustice and bigotry at levels.”  

‘Walking the walk’ 

In Law & Equity was formed two years ago after a group of attorneys from the Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Louisville offices got together for dinner in Cincinnati. The group was all associates and one partner, John Selent, an openly gay man in the Lousiville office.  

“The conversation was, we wanted to make sure that LGBTQ+ people in the law firm … felt not just tolerated—that was too small a bar—but welcomed,” Selent says. “The goal was to make that welcoming atmosphere intentional and part of our institutional culture.”  

The group, which is co-led by Brinker, was enthusiastically embraced by firm leadership. Firmwide, In Law & Equity has more than 200 members. It focuses on issues like trans-inclusive health care benefits, policies against discrimination and making sure mentors are available to diverse attorneys. Visibility also is a key concept of the group’s work. 

“We want to highlight the success of diverse attorneys and the firm is committed to that,” Brinker says. “Since the beginning of 2018, 49 percent of attorneys who have joined Dinsmore are considered diverse. Those numbers prove the firm is walking the walk.” 

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Dinsmore & Shohl

191 W. Nationwide Blvd., Suite 300, Columbus 43215

Business: Law firm

Offices: 26

Employees: 1,270

Local employees: 124