Out and proud lawyers
Beyond the obvious, there are also crystal clear business reasons why law firms should ensure they offer safe environments for their LGBT staff to come out, or be out, in, explains Jonathan Wheeler
It was the first day in my first proper job as an articled clerk (archaic English for ‘trainee solicitor’) at a large law firm in Liverpool. That evening we were treated to a bonding night on the town by some of our older colleagues. Imagine my mortification as a young, gay man when I learned that on the agenda for part of the evening’s entertainment was a visit to a local gay bar ‘to take a look at the queers’.
I remember being told to ‘keep my back against the wall’ as we entered, with apparent jocularity and misplaced bonhomie. Having struggled to overcome my own prejudices, and successfully ‘out’ myself to friends and relatives a year or so earlier, I ran straight back into the closet, and shut the door as far as work was concerned. It was nine months later that I finally felt able to be honest with my colleagues about my sexuality and that to me was an important personally political act.
You’ll be relieved to hear this was a long time ago, back in the early 1990s, and that after 25 years working as a lawyer, now in a managing partner role at one of the country’s top complex personal injury firms and most definitely ‘out’, I am thankfully able to report that attitudes have improved from this woeful starting point. But they’re still far from perfect.
Over my career I’ve seen a significant shift both in the wider world’s viewpoint on sexual orientation and inclusion (I’m confident everyone reading this article today would agree that ‘gawping at gay people’ should never have been considered an acceptable pastime), and also in terms of how law firms handle assumptions about their employees’ sexuality.
Today, the profession is proud to point out that solicitors’ firms now take up half of the Top 10 slots on Stonewall’s list of the best LGBT-friendly employers. But the profession’s new confidence in its own open-mindedness today belies the fact that the shift in attitude has been so recent. You don’t have to look back many years at all to see a very different story. In fact, as recently as ten years ago, no lawyer had ever been officially documented as LGBT – the profession simply didn’t recognise there was an issue that needed monitoring and addressing.
This is reflected in Stonewall’s 2008 LGBT-friendly employers list: law firms are conspicuous by their absence, not just from the Top 10 but the entire Top 100. Even as recently as 2013, the highest ranking firm only came in at number 31 in the list.
Simple question and answer
So this begs the question: what was the Law Society’s LGBT Division doing to raise awareness at this time – that wonderful group that today does so much to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lawyers and their allies? Well, here’s the thing: it wasn’t set up until 2016. Yes, you read that right. This is not a typo: the Law Society’s LGBT Division was only launched in February last year.
But why is ‘the LGBT issue’ important for lawyers in the workplace anyway, some of you might be thinking. Surely people’s sexuality is a private matter and has nothing to do with the work they do? Lawyers want to be known for the quality of their legal thinking, their astuteness in understanding what’s really important to clients, and their ability to use their skills to solve clients’ legal problems. Why, and how, is what they get up to in their personal time relevant to any of this?
The simple answer is this: on any given Monday, offices up and down the country will be full of people chit-chatting about what they did at the weekend. This is one of the simplest and most common ways we bond with our co-workers and clients alike. Now, straight people can do this with easy freedom: ‘We took the kids to the zoo…’, ‘The wife and I went to the theatre…’. But as soon as you have to hide aspects of your domestic detail – which any LGBT person still in the closet will feel they have to do – you’re at a disadvantage. You have to be careful what you say. Mindful what you might inadvertently give away. Fearful of other people’s disapproval. And your work relationships, with colleagues and clients, will be the poorer for it.
Moreover, any lawyer building their reputation and career these days will be given the advice that they need to ‘bring their whole selves to their work’. This is how to create real career success, the familiar rhetoric goes, and at the same time achieve the greatest degree of personal fulfilment. Indeed, this is exactly how we mentor all our staff at Bolt Burdon Kemp.
Our lawyers are encouraged to specialise in the areas they feel most passionately about, because we know from experience this is where people do their best work. But, how can you bring your whole self to work on the one hand, if you’re routinely hiding part of yourself on the other?
Stonewall can even put hard statistics behind this: if LGBT lawyers stay in the closet, they say their productivity drops by 30 per cent. And team leaders and bosses should take note of another surprising statistic: studies by the Harvard Business Review show that people who remain in the closet are 73 per cent more likely to leave their job.
So ensuring law firms are safe environments to come out in, or be out in, is not just about ticking the political correctness box. There are crystal clear business reasons too why the legal profession should face these issues and do better.
We have come a long way but there is much further to go.