LGBT lawyers: Coming out is good for careers and business
The solicitor profession can shrug off its â€˜stuffy' public perception by embracing its lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender colleagues, writes Erin Smith
At the beginning of 2016 the Law Society set up a new division specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) solicitors. This initiative has been widely welcomed, but some in the profession have asked why '“ given the protected position of LGBT people under UK law, and their acceptance in modern society generally '“ this group should be necessary. Sadly, not only history but also recent events amply illustrate the answer to
The law has always been a conservative profession, evolving slowly and carefully, sometimes almost intentionally lagging behind the rest of society. It's hard to believe that the
first female solicitor was only admitted to the profession less than a hundred years ago (SJ159/40), and black history month has only been celebrated by the Law Society since 2009. This conservatism has arguably cost us dear as a profession, and we are frequently seen as 'stuffy' and aloof, dominated by white, male, middle-class 'fat cats', regardless of the truth, which is
that we, like society at large, are a diverse bunch.
As a result, many people are reluctant to see
a solicitor if they can possibly avoid it, not only because of the cost but also the perceived
entry into a world that is wholly alien to them. Worse still, this impression of the profession dissuades many talented young people with diverse backgrounds from entering the law.
They assume their backgrounds will hinder their career and so choose to go elsewhere. All of this
is bad for business. Over time the Law Society
has sought to address these issues, setting up specialist divisions for women, ethnic minorities, and, eventually, for LGBTs.
If there was any doubt that increased diversity was good for business, the evidence is now clear. In a recent BBC report on the formation of his management team, Alan Joyce, the openly gay chief executive of Qantas, who is credited with leading a successful turnaround of the Australian airline, is quoted as saying: 'We've got three
Brits, an American, an Irishman, a Kiwi. We've
got three women, three gay men, people that
were mathematicians, people that were business consultants, people that were flight attendants.
'I can say categorically that we wouldn't have gotten through the transformation and the tough times of this business as well as we did without having that diversity in the top leadership team.
At the end of the day, it makes you a better business.'
Still sceptical? Research by management consultancy firm McKinsey confirms Joyce's
view. In its paper, 'Diversity Matters', an analysis
of data by the firm found a statistically significant relationship between a more diverse leadership team and better financial performance, with companies in the top quartile of gender diversity 15 per cent more likely to have financial returns that were above their national industry median. Those in the top quartile of ethnic diversity were 35 per cent more likely to reap positive returns. Moreover, accountancy firm Grant Thornton recently concluded that 'diversity
leads to better decision making' in business.There are, of course, further reasons beyond your bottom line to accept and promote diversity in your business. Even if one discounts 'extreme' events such as the slaughter in Orlando's Pulse nightclub this summer, homophobic hate crimes are on the rise. In 2015, more than 75,000 young people in the UK experienced bullying for 'being gay'. As a transwoman I have to pass various
legal and medical tests, and obtain my spouse's consent, before I can be legally recognised as female for all purposes; what other group in this society has to jump through so many hoops to be allowed to be themselves?
In addition, there are the more pervasive, insidious forms of discrimination against LGBT people. A gay couple was recently challenged by a security guard outside a branch of Sainsbury's following a customer complaint about them holding hands in public. The supermarket duly apologised, but what possessed either the customer or the security guard to complain or
act as they did?
A few weeks ago at the Rio Olympics, the camera panned around the crowd for a 'kiss-cam' and a BBC commentator exclaimed: 'I hope it doesn't zoom in on two blokes!' Again, the BBC apologised, but overall reactions were mixed; after all, it was only a joke, wasn't it? But would
it have been a joke had the commentator exclaimed: 'I hope it doesn't zoom in on a black person?' How about a Catholic, or a Muslim, or a disabled person? Society still appears hardwired to think that LGBT people are 'less than' other members of society: their existence might be mentioned, but rarely in a positive or respectful way. This is plain wrong.
It is here that the Law Society can provide leadership. For better or worse (often and unfortunately the latter) this profession maintains
a high profile in society. It affords us the opportunity to be a beacon of modernity and acceptance, thereby recovering some of the reputational loss
we have suffered over the years. But is the Law Society the right body to take this forward?
Now, I'm no flag-waver for Chancery Lane, and
I have had my doubts about the organisation in the past. I have been a member of the society for over 20 years, and the most I had to do with the organisation until last year was to pay my annual fees. As far as I was concerned, I really got little back, and the organisation had no relevance to me, my working life, or the way I do business. But when I came out professionally as transgender in 2015 and informed both the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), both bodies handled the situation in an exemplary way; I was quite frankly astonished.
Fellow solicitors, upon hearing about my experience, concluded that I had finally taken
leave of my senses; seeing me in a skirt was one thing, but hearing me say nice things about the SRA was way too much for some. But it was true; the 'official parts' of my profession accepted me in
a heartbeat '“ a process I had assumed would be miserable. Explaining this and documenting that to the satisfaction of 'crusty old men' turned out to be almost pleasurable. Acceptance is so important for any minority, and both the Law Society and the SRA handled my case with aplomb.
So, when I was subsequently told that the society was setting up an LGBT division I was surprised: surprised that it was making the effort to reach out to LGBT members as a whole, and that it was only happening now. Nevertheless,
I was keen to get involved. The committee which
I now chair is populated by members who are as determined as I am to highlight the benefits to the profession of accepting LGBT partners,
staff, and clients, to promote the profession as
an enlightened, modern career that welcomes LGBT entrants, and to call out those instances where these standards are not met.
I have seen comments from within the profession suggesting that being LGBT is all
about one's private life '“ indeed, one's sex
life '“ and these issues should have nothing to
do with the workplace. Let's get one thing clear '“ encouraging people to come out at work does not increase the instance of lewd or inappropriate conversations by the work station or the water cooler. LGBT people are no more likely to talk about the intimate details of their sex lives at work than the next straight person, and any suggestion to the contrary is specious
nonsense based on insidious bigotry.
Coming out as LGBT permits the freedom to discuss matters which are talked about by straight people all the time: what you did at the weekend, who are you going on holiday with, whose turn it is to cook dinner? If someone can discuss where he and his wife visited over the weekend, why can't someone else discuss what places she and her wife visited? There should be no reason at all, and if a person fears that coming out as LGBT will damage their prospects in the business then that organisation needs to change '“ rapidly.
Constantly hiding who you really are every working day is exhausting and ultimately debilitating. It undermines the quality of a person's work and their future prospects. For more information on the LGBT division, Erin Smith is principal at Taveners and chair of the LGBT division of the Law Society @ladytechlawyer www.tavenerslaw.co.uk
In the past, countless lives and careers have
been blighted in this way; it has to stop for the good of the individual, their organisation, and society, which benefits from our legal services.
If the profession continues to highlight its ready acceptance of diversity, maybe the crusty public image of the solicitor will get a long overdue transformation too. Encourage, promote, and
let people be themselves to get on with their
jobs. Your bottom line will thank you, and ultimately your profession will too.
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For more information on the LGBT division,
Erin Smith is principal at Taveners and chair of the LGBT division of the Law Society @ladytechlawyer www.tavenerslaw.co.uk