What's It Like to Be LGBT+ in the Legal Profession?

Contributed by
6 Sep 2019

We attended the Law Society’s annual celebration of LGBT history month to discover what issues remain for LGBT+ lawyers.

SINCE 2000, a wave of legislative change has transformed LGBT+ rights in England and Wales, granting LGBT+ individuals the right to 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 to protect and enhance LGBT+ people’s lives.

As a result, the UK now has 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 – but not fully altered – by legislative change. 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 on 4 February 2016. The panel consisted of district judge Keith Etherington, Daniel Gerring of Travers Smith, Daisy Reeves of Berwin Leighton Paisner, Clare Fielding from Gowling WLG and was chaired by former president of the Law Society Lucy Scott-Moncrieff. Law Society chief exec Catherine Dixon was on hand to make some opening remarks. The event – which featured a Q&A between panel and audience – also marked the launch of the Law Society’s 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.

How many lawyers are out?

In her opening remarks, Catherine Dixon indicated that there are around 3,000 LGBT solicitors practising in England and Wales – roughly 2.5% of the total. It is hard to get a sense of how many are out in their professional lives: the most up-to-date stats at the time came from a 2009 online survey conducted by the Law Society.

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 sexual orientation a secret at their first firm.

If a similar survey were conducted today it would hopefully yield better results. Yet the figures captured in 2009 do point to the likelihood that many solicitors still hide their sexual orientation 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

For example, Daisy Reeves of BLP pointed to stats from Stonewall which show that if LGBT+ lawyers aren’t out at work their productivity decreases by 30%. In addition, research by Harvard Business Review shows that people who aren’t out are 73% more likely to leave their workplace within three years. Non-LGBT+ friendly law firms therefore risk not getting the most out of their LGBT employees and losing potentially lucrative talent.

If firms can’t retain openly LGBT+ lawyers, then they’ll fail to attract LGBT+ lawyers. Daniel Gerring revealed he nearly didn’t join his current firm, Travers Smith, due the absence of LGBT+ diversity across its marketing materials (which is not the case anymore). If potential LGBT+ recruits see no evidence of LGBT employees at a firm, he asked, will they be inclined to join? Or will they opt to join another firm that boasts initiatives, support networks and a mix of openly LGBT lawyers who are happy and successful?

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, Daisy Reeves 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 workforce with LGBT+ representation could cost a firm dearly.

Like attracts like, a panel member commented, 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 the best advice, and b) where they feel most comfortable.

This led 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.

What the panel were referring to was the importance of small talk in forging client relationships, i.e. feeling comfortable in those little chats about what you did at the weekend or where you’re going on holiday this year. If an LGBT+ lawyer appears evasive or aloof when answering these basic questions because they are nervous about being out, can they successfully build relationships with clients and engender their trust?

But here’s the snag: not every client will appreciate having an openly LGBT+ lawyer. It can be challenging to engage with clients who are very traditional in their outlook or based in countries where homosexuality is still illegal or culturally taboo. Here an LGBT+ lawyer may worry about potentially losing business for the firm if they reveal their sexual orientation, or have concerns about putting themselves at risk if they opt to work abroad in one of the many countries that still penalise homosexuality. One audience member spoke of the threat she felt to her safety as she worked overseas with an international client – she even lied about her family life and pretended to have a husband to reduce the risk of detection.

This is troubling for any LGBT+ lawyer looking to do work abroad, especially in countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, which many big international firms in London target for business expansion. But 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 called upon their senior colleagues to follow suit and come out. Doing so was described as a duty – something that has to be done if real progress is to be made. If junior lawyers don’t have senior role models, the panellists argued, how will they know that it’s okay to be open about their sexual orientation 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 perceived while progressing through the profession. Overcoming this cautious approach – which experience has perhaps 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. Daniel Gerring – at the time the only openly gay partner at his firm, Travers Smith – explained how exhausting it is to balance a full-time job as a lawyer with sole responsibility for promoting a firm’s LGBT+ diversity.

But Gerring did have words of encouragement for those with reservations about coming out: being openly gay and speaking his mind had actually helped him 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 panellist 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 the positive top-down message. There is 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 panellist 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. These men weren’t doing it on purpose, but it nonetheless put the barriers up and prevented others from joining the conversation.

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. The ‘T’ in LGBT+ is, one of the panellists raised, 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. This perception has stuck, despite – in recent years especially – an increasingly diverse workforce and more attention being paid to gender, ethnic and LGBT+ diversity.

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 okay 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.

Some 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.