Maxime Matthew, an Associate at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, has a dynamic portfolio encompassing antitrust matters, intellectual property cases, and complex multidistrict litigation. They also are involved in extensive pro bono work, including challenging Arkansas’s ban on gender-affirming care for minors. Their work on that case, Brandt v. Rutledge, helps prevent Matthew, who is trans and nonbinary, from feeling powerless amidst ongoing attacks on transgender rights. “It’s a scary time to be a trans person in this country,” they say. “I’m so grateful to have this little corner where I can push back.” In June, a federal district court judge held that the state ban violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Due Process Clauses, and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case is now pending in the Eighth Circuit, where the State just petitioned for an initial hearing en banc.
Matthew’s ongoing work on Brandt also recently led to a poignant personal achievement. When the case was appealed to the Eighth Circuit, Matthew was forced to select gendered honorifics to be displayed on the docket. “There weren’t any other options on the form and it just was such a surreal moment,” they recall. “I was arguing to protect transgender rights while I, a trans attorney, had to pick an honorific that didn’t describe me.” After discussing the issue with other trans and nonbinary attorneys, they requested that the Eighth Circuit change their honorific to Mx., which the court did. Nevertheless, Matthew stresses that they don’t want to be called a success story. “When someone says I’m brave or resilient, I always ask why – and what if the barriers I overcame didn’t exist in the first place?”
Driven by a desire to solve complex problems, Matthew pursued a legal career because they understood the power of legal knowledge. “I wanted to be a barrier between clients and the system – a tour guide for people navigating difficult terrain.” Originally from Canada, they earned their J.D. from the University of British Columbia before moving to New York City to join Sullivan & Cromwell. Matthew’s Canadian background makes their advocacy for transgender rights in Arkansas particularly poignant. “On one hand, it’s amazing work,” they say about Brandt. “But on the other hand, it’s jarring to pause and remember that we are simply arguing that people should get healthcare. This case wouldn’t exist in Canada.”
Despite their grades, resume, and interests being best suited for the traditional firm route, Matthew recalls feeling a lot of institutional and peer pressure to pursue public interest law in law school because of their identity. They believe they were pushed towards a career in public interest law because of a lack of queer and trans representation in large, traditional law firms. “That type of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” they reflect. “There is important work happening in traditional law firms. That’s where I wanted to be.”
That same lack of representation is what makes Matthew’s participation in the LGBTQ+ Bar’s Trans in BigLaw Monthly Networking Meetings so important to them. The private networking meetings for trans and nonbinary lawyers working in BigLaw serve as a space where Matthew can connect with other attorneys who understand the unique challenges and experiences they face professionally. “I can exist in this space and don’t have to explain or justify myself,” they say. The meetings are also a place to build upon shared knowledge. Matthew didn’t realize changing their honorific to Mx. in the Eight Circuit was even a realistic option until someone else brought up their own experiences changing honorifics to Mx.
Beyond the Trans in BigLaw Monthly Networking Meetings, Matthew’s favorite aspect of National LGBTQ+ Bar membership is the Bar’s steady reminder of the LGBTQ+ legal community’s collective power. For them, the robust community created through the Bar counters the isolation that can accompany being openly LGBTQ+ in the legal field. Matthew especially enjoys the annual Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair, which they describe as “magic.”
While in law school, Matthew first attended Lavender Law® virtually in the back of their truck on a camping trip during the pandemic years. Even virtually, it was a profound experience of community building. “The idea of existing publicly as an openly queer and trans lawyer in BigLaw and seeing other people who exist in that space was pure magic,” they recall. The annual BiLaw Caucus is a special highlight of Lavender Law® for Matthew because of how special it is to be in a room full of bi+ people. They joked that this year, the facilitators asked BiLaw Caucus attendees who amongst them had ever been in a room with so many bi+ people before – and everyone who raised their hands explained that they did so because they’d previously been to the annual caucus. Jokes aside, Matthew stressed that having dedicated community spaces to connect under the larger LGBTQ+ umbrella is deeply meaningful and affirming.
When asked what advice they would give other trans and nonbinary attorneys, Matthew shared a lesson they learned as a law student. “Fundamentally, this system is not built for us.” That shouldn’t be discouraging, though, Matthew says. “Understanding that reality creates a new starting place – this system was not built for me, yet I am still here.” A queer and trans mentor in law school shared this wisdom with Matthew after they confessed that they didn’t feel they belonged. Instead of assuring Matthew that they did, their mentor simply replied, “You don’t.” That greatly changed Matthew’s perspective on what it means to be LGBTQ+, and particularly trans, in the legal profession. “We need to stop telling people they belong,” Matthew says. “Instead, say ‘yes, this is not built for you, but you are here and we are going to fix it together.’”
What needs fixing? To start, Matthew says, “We use gender as a proxy for professionalism.” They pointed out how many gendered dynamics are present in the legal profession – from gendered bathrooms in court to dress code expectations for bar swearing-in ceremonies. “Trans and nonbinary folks are seen as an implicit challenge to these systems for just existing.” There are many big things that need fixing, but small changes that shift the prominent role of gender in legal professionalism, like expanding or even dropping honorifics, can go a long way.
As far as what is next for Matthew, they look forward to the upcoming publication of their new article, “If More Mormons Attended University, Would Canada be Okay with Polygamy? Unpacking Literatures of Social Exclusion in Canada’s Continued Criminalization of Polygamy.” The piece won a nationwide essay competition and is set to be published in an upcoming edition of the Canadian Journal of Family Law.
The National LGBTQ+ Bar is thankful to Maxime Matthew for all of their hard work and insights – we are glad they are a member of the Bar! The Bar would also like to thank Debevoise for being a founding sponsor of our Trans in BigLaw Monthly Networking Meetings. Participation is free for our current DEI consulting practice law firm clients or $2,500 for other participating firms. The meetings are open to all trans and nonbinary attorneys or business professionals working in BigLaw. Please email Dru Levasseur, our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.