Not sure about being ‘out’ in the legal profession? We attended The Law Society’s annual celebration of LGBT history month to find out how comfortable it is and what issues remain for LGBT lawyers.

This article was written by Paul Rance, Deputy Editor, Chambers Student.

Heading in the right direction

Since 2000, a wave of legislative change has transformed LGBT rights in England and Wales. It began when the age of consent was equalised and the ban on serving openly in the military was lifted. As it gained momentum, we witnessed other landmark decisions: the granting of rights to legally adopt, change gender and, most recently, get married. These developments represented a major victory for those – including many LGBT lawyers – who’d campaigned tirelessly for a legal framework that could protect and enhance LGBT people’s lives.

As a result, we now possess some of the best LGBT equality legislation in the world. But changing people’s attitudes and entrenched prejudices is a lengthy process: one that can be stimulated by legislative change, but not fully altered by it alone. LGBT people still face challenges in their daily lives, and the workplace is a common environment where issues may occur. So how is the legal profession doing when it comes to promoting LGBT equality?

This was the question pondered by a panel of LGBT lawyers at the Law Society’s annual celebration of LGBT History Month in February 2016. The event – which featured a Q&A between panel and audience – also marked the launch of the Law Society’s new LGBT Lawyers Division. Its purpose: to shape the Law Society’s strategy on promoting LGBT diversity and inclusion in the profession. With this intention in mind, panel members and audience alike spoke about their experiences and the main issues to confront.

Full details of the event and panellists can be found here.

How many lawyers are out?

In her opening speech, the Law Society’s chief exec Catherine Dixon indicated that are around 3,000 LGBT solicitors practising in England and Wales – accounting for roughly 2.5% of the total. It is hard to get a sense of how many might be out in their professional lives: the most up-to-date stats we can draw upon come from a 2009 study conducted by the Law Society. It sent out an online survey in order to gather data on the career experience of LGBT solicitors.

Among the findings it was revealed that 96% of gay male and 92% of gay female respondents were out in their personal lives. However, only 9% of gay male and 27% of gay female respondents described themselves as ‘widely out’ in the workplace. Junior solicitors were more likely to be out, but nonetheless 40% of those under 25 had kept their sexuality a secret at their first firm. The results of the Law Society’s 2009 career survey can be downloaded by readers here.

If a similar survey were conducted today it would hopefully yield better results. Yet the figures captured in 2009 do point to the likelihood of many solicitors still hiding their sexuality at work. Law firms should take note, the panellists suggested, as failing to create open and inclusive environments can impact their business in multiple ways.

Ongoing challenges

One speaker kick-started proceedings by putting these stats out there: if LGBT lawyers aren’t out at work their productivity decreases by 30%; in addition, 76% of people who aren’t out leave their workplace within three years. Law firms therefore risk not getting the most out of their LGBT employees, but also losing potentially lucrative talent.

If firms can’t retain openly LGBT lawyers, then they’ll fail to attract LGBT lawyers. Another panel member almost didn’t join his current firm due the absence of LGBT diversity across its marketing materials. If potential recruits see no evidence of it at a firm, he argued, will they be inclined to join? Or will they opt to join another that boasts initiatives, support networks and a mix of openly LGBT lawyers who are happy and successful? It’s a no-brainer really.

It’s not just the potential talent drain that firms must consider. Key client relationships could be at risk too. Big businesses and financial institutions increasingly expect their legal teams to reflect the diverse make-up that they themselves possess; it’s quite common, a finance partner revealed, to send over diversity stats to banks before they choose legal representation. These highly sought-after clients can take their pick, so failing to assemble a diverse team with LGBT members could cost a firm dearly.

Like attracts like, another panel member added, explaining how LGBT lawyers can boost business in another way. She had been able to secure a client who was also gay. This client – who brought in a lot of money for the firm – appreciated doing business in a comfortable space, where there was no need to remain guarded about their personal life, if the conversation happened to take that turn. Clients, the panellist summed up, go where a) they know they’ll receive best advice, and b) where they feel most comfortable.

This lead the discussion to an important point: authenticity. The legal industry is becomingly increasingly personal, with more and more emphasis placed on networking and business development. It can be very difficult for LGBT lawyers to operate successfully in this world if they don’t feel they can be open and communicate honestly.

Let’s be clear: the speakers weren’t suggesting that lawyers should yell ‘I’M GAY’ as soon as a client enters the room. What they were referring to was the importance of small talk in forging client relationships i.e. those little chats about what you did at the weekend or where you’re going on holiday this year. If a lawyer appears evasive and aloof when answering these basic questions, can they successfully build relationships with clients and engender their trust?

But here’s the snag: not every client will appreciate transparency. It can be challenging to engage with clients who are very traditional in their outlook or based in countries where homosexuality is still illegal and/or culturally taboo. Here an LGBT lawyer may worry about potentially losing business for the firm if they reveal their sexuality, or have concerns about putting themselves at risk if they opt to work in one of the many countries that still penalise homosexuality. One audience member spoke of the very real threat to her safety as she worked on-the-ground with an international client – so much so that she made up lies about her family life and pretended to have a husband to reduce the risk posed to her.

This is troubling for any LGBT lawyer looking to do work in areas of Africa, the Middle East and Asia: jurisdictions which the big international firms in London increasingly target for business. While firms are limited in what they can do to guarantee the safety of LGBT lawyers working overseas, there is a lot they can do to improve these lawyers’ career experience closer to home.

Action points

First, the panel – which was predominantly made up of partners – called upon their senior colleagues to follow suit and come out. Doing so was frequently described as a duty – something that has to be done if real progress is to be made. With very few senior reference points, the panellists argued, how will junior lawyers know that it’s OK to be open about their sexuality and that it won’t hinder their progress? A clear top-down message must be sent to those starting out and climbing the ranks.

This does, of course, put a lot of pressure on senior lawyers. Their reluctance to come out no doubt stems from the negative messages they themselves received while progressing through the profession. Overcoming this cautious approach – which experience has repeatedly validated – is very difficult. But taking the plunge is all for the greater good, the panel agreed. It can also take the pressure off those who are already out and raising the profile of LGBT lawyers in the profession. One partner – the only openly gay partner at his firm – explained how exhausting it is to balance his full-time job as a lawyer with the sole responsibility of promoting his firm’s LGBT diversity.

He also had words of encouragement for those with reservations about coming out. He explained how being openly gay and speaking his mind actually helped to advance his career: during his interview for partnership, he told the room that if the firm was ‘better at the gay thing’ it would be a more successful business. The partners agreed, and he subsequently got the promotion. Another partner revealed how her involvement in LGBT consultations at her firm exposed her to key senior people – including the managing partner – who saw her potential for advancement.

These stories show that there are senior partners and management figures who are willing to listen and effect change with the help of LGBT lawyers. But, it was suggested, more management buy-in is needed across the private-practice sphere. If more straight leaders become official diversity champions and allies, they can further bolster this top-down message. There was a caveat though: champions and allies should only commit if their interest is sincere. This isn’t a convenient opportunity to shove a trendy title on a website bio: champions must be willing to get actively involved in shaping strategy and developing ideas to make the working environment more inclusive.

One of the major blockades to inclusion is unconscious bias. As such, it’s essential that all lawyers receive adequate coaching on it. Unintentionally excluding others is easily done, as one female partner explained. She had recently attended a boardroom meeting where the men in the room engaged in some ‘clubby’ chat that made it hard for others to wade in, whether they were female, LGBT and/or an ethnic minority. They weren’t doing it on purpose, but it nonetheless put the barriers up and prevented others from having a say.

Yet LGBT networks have a role to play in fostering more inclusive communication too. Fear of getting the terminology wrong or inadvertently saying something offensive can prevent people from including their LGBT co-workers in projects and social events. Networks can tackle this by creating safe spaces where straight colleagues can bolster their knowledge and familiarise themselves with preferred terms. The approach should never, the panellists insisted, involve castigating colleagues for saying something unintentionally insensitive. Instead, it’s about equipping people with the tools and language that will enable them to confidently reach out to their LGBT colleagues.

This is especially important when it comes to integrating transgender colleagues. Even one of the speakers admitted she wasn’t up to speed with the variety of terms that transgender people use to define themselves. The ‘T’ in LGBT is, she added, an area that desperately needs far more attention paid to it. Law firms must ensure that they are mirroring the advances that are taking place in broader society, and work not just to ensure the nuances of transgender identity are understood, but to establish environments where transgender people can thrive and progress professionally.

Spread the word

There’s no getting away from it: the legal profession is still widely viewed as stuffy and draconian. Its perception as a stomping ground for privileged-straight-white men has stuck, despite – in recent years especially – its attempts to promote a more diverse workforce. There’s no smoke without fire though, and this rep is proving difficult to dislodge because the profession as a whole hasn’t got to where it needs to be.

When it comes to strengthening LGBT diversity, law firms must focus on their working environments. The appearance of more senior LGBT role models and straight allies in management will strengthen the message that it’s OK to be out. Regular unconscious bias training combined with the creation of safe communication spaces will also help lawyers to connect with their LGBT colleagues.

If firms succeed in making their environments more comfortable for LGBT lawyers, they will reap the benefits: openly LGBT solicitors will be more productive and successful. As a result, they’ll progress through the ranks and become more visible across the firm. More visibility means the power to attract more LGBT people to the profession, thus helping to dispel law’s fusty reputation.

Some of the big City firms have been leaders in this area, in that they’ve taken steps to establish more tailored and practical LGBT initiatives. It’s now time to learn from these schemes and replicate their successes across the country – adapting them to accommodate the size of firms outside the capital and their available resources.

And with the help of the Law Society’s new LGBT Lawyers Division, hopefully we’ll be seeing this targeted approach deployed sooner rather than later. Otherwise the profession will have to own its outdated image for a while longer.

This article was written by Paul Rance, Deputy Editor, Chambers Student.

Networks, forums and initiatives:

DiversCity

BLP and HSF set up DiversCity in 2011; it now has the support of ten other London firms. Each year, DiversCity holds a day-long event with representatives from participating firms. Expect panel discussions, workshops and plenty of networking opportunities. The aim? To attract LGBT undergraduates to work in the City as solicitors. As co-founder Daisy Reeves, a finance partner at BLP, explains: “We want to help dispel the myth that to ‘get ahead’ in Law you need to stay ‘in the closet’. On the contrary – firms are increasingly looking for more diverse workforces that are reflective of their own client-base. Evidence strongly suggests that a diverse workforce leads to greater business success.” To attend, complete an application form here.

Those who attend the event can subsequently apply for DiversCity’s mentoring scheme. It pairs students up with LGBT partners and associates at participating firms, who help them to form action plans to progress in the profession

InterLaw Diversity Forum

Founded by CMS Cameron McKenna partner Daniel Winterfeldt in 2008, Interlaw is a forum for LGBT networks in law firms and anyone in the LGBT legal community. It has over 1,000 members and supporters from more than 70 law firms and 40 corporates and financial institutions. Its goal is to encourage LGBT diversity and inclusion in the legal sector.
Membership is free and available to anyone within the LGBT legal community. Click here to be added to the forum’s mailing list. Meetings are held on a monthly basis; details are confirmed via email beforehand. Also check out the forum’s specific initiatives for women and transgender lawyers.

Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association (LAGLA)

LAGLA organises social events in and around Soho, with regular attendees including law students, trainees, solicitors, barristers and even the occasional judge. Alongside these more informal get-togethers, LAGLA also hosts lectures, seminars and conferences.

Membership is free, and to join just register on the website. Once your membership is confirmed, you’ll be able to access details of future events and register attendance where required. Solicitor members come from City firms, the high street and niche firms.

Currently, most events are in London, but there are members all over the country, and LAGLA may set up regional groups if there is sufficient demand.

FreeBar

Spurred on by the success of law firm-sponsored initiatives like those above, the bar launched this forum in 2016. A group of sets including Matrix Chambers, No5 Chambers and Hardwicke have got together with Stonewall to support LGBT barristers through their careers. It’s the bar’s first LGBT forum, and the first to include straight allies.

If you’re interested in attending future FreeBar events please email info@freebar.co.uk.
Bar Lesbian and Gay Group (BLAGG)

BLAGG was founded in 1994 by students at the Inns of Court School of Law. ‘Much of the original impetus was to provide a support network for lesbians and gay men at the Bar, and for those entering the profession,’ the website explains.
The group hosts a variety of events and one-day conferences (in conjunction with LAGLA), as well as a free legal service to assist lesbians and gay men. If you’ve been called to the Bar you can become a member for free, but donations are appreciated.
Students take note: BLAGG members regularly present at BPTC providers and attend the National Pupillage Fair too. There’s also a sponsorship scheme, which links students up with barristers who can offer guidance and support.

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