Lawyers often get asked what it is like being a solicitor, but how many of us have stopped to ask what life is like for a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) solicitor practising in the UK?
It is tempting to believe that any problems once experienced by the LGBT legal community have been consigned to history. Indeed, we have made significant progress. Lawyers made up 15 per cent of the top 100 LGBT business leaders this year, according to the LGBT professional network OUTstanding. Ten law firms, meanwhile, made it into the top 100 of this year’s LGBT charity Stonewall’s audit of the most gay-friendly employers. This is an increase from eight per cent last year, and none over five years ago.
Given that LGBT people were never recorded or acknowledged within the legal community, these developments show significant movement that should be celebrated. The development of the LGBT legal community is rarely spoken about in terms of change, but if we look to recorded history, no lawyer was ever officially documented as LGBT before the last decade. So expecting reams of commentary on the evolution of the situation is maybe a bit farfetched.
That being said, I would tell every lawyer to expect at least one LGBT lawyer within their firm, they just may not know who. And why should they? Why is there a need for someone to say whether they are LGBT? It has nothing to do with the work one produces. The argument goes further: even if you do come to learn a colleague is LGBT, there would be no problem and therefore nothing to discuss. One could even argue that staying quiet actually bolsters and supports the LGBT legal community more than vocalising your support because in doing the former you are not ‘making a song and dance’ about the situation and therefore actually treating such lawyers as you would anyone else.
The problem, however, is that sexuality can remain undetected and unless somebody shares it, it can remain so. As much as we like to keep our personal lives separate from our work, we must admit that at times they cannot be separated. Most solicitors in a heterosexual relationship would admit their colleagues know who their partner is and many may even have introduced them. We can be in the office for hours a day, five days a week surrounded by the same people, attending functions and networking events with them, wait by the kettle with them and travel with them. We must admit we all have times in our working life where our personal life is brought up and for LGBT solicitors there can still be a tension between wanting to be open about an important facet of life and being unsure how to approach the subject as a professional.
This tension illustrates that prejudices have not yet been ‘consigned to history’. As much as we like to think they have, when we look to statistics again, we start to see the cracks. Not one of that 15 per cent of LGBT business leaders was female or of an ethnic minority and only one was associated with a company based within the North of England. Out of the ten firms in the Stonewall Top 100 Employers, not one of them have their headquarters in the North of England.
This prejudice, still present in the workplace, can create worry for LGBT workers and can in turn inhibit them from being their ‘full self’ at work. The ability to bring all of oneself to work is part of success. What is often not known by the straight colleague is that pressure to not be oneself at work (or the lack of encouragement to be) can have a negative impact on productivity. We can all relate to having a personal stress at work and understand how they can distract you from your work. Being ‘in the closet’ at work is no different. When this is acknowledged, the issue becomes not only an equality issue but one of economics.
If we create an environment where people can be themselves at work, we can eradicate this worry and put that energy in to driving productivity. Creating an open culture is about, as co-chair of the Interlaw Diversity Forum for LGBT Networks (InterLaw Diversity Forum) Daniel Winterfeldt eloquently put, “creating an inclusive environment to recruit, retain and advance the best talent”. This culture will not only cultivate a happier work force, but is likely to also increase productivity.
There seems to be a significant difference between Southern firms and Northern firms in how the LGBT legal community is celebrated. This is not because there are no LGBT lawyers past Birmingham. The reason must be because the South has become a more active community at a faster rate. London is home to the Lesbian and Gay Legal Association and the InterLaw Diversity Forum. The London Law Society are also preparing for a fantastic ‘Legal Heroes’ flume at this year’s London Gay Pride where “members of the Law Society, Bar Council, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), InterLaw Diversity Forum, Bar Lesbian and Gay Group (BLAGG) and the Junior Lawyers Division will once again parade through the streets of London.”
LGBT networking events are held regularly in London, and Southern firms are already being announced as ‘Star Performers’ by Stonewall, who have been celebrating the legal sector for showing “tremendous change” with regard to LGBT awareness. Yet unfortunately statistics show this ‘change’ is yet to be seen and celebrated in the North of England and the North East. The region needs to develop equivalent campaigns in order to create an equivalent legal culture.
It is time for the North, and specifically the North East, to celebrate LGBT diversity within the legal profession. This is not a plea to all LGBT lawyers to ‘come out’. It is instead asking the North East to create a legal community that allows for any legal worker to come out if they want to. Clients are accepted as diverse and it is time that lawyers allowed themselves to be also, inside the office as well as outside.
Indeed, “you don’t need to be shouting from a soapbox about gay rights these days…” says The Guardian’s legal director Gill Philips, but we do need to start talking more about it as well as showing and celebrating diversity. Philips asks:
“If people go to law firms’ dinners, are they bringing their partners or not…Because they should be doing so…visibility and availability is key.”
We know the LGBT legal community exists, and as soon as we come together and create an openly supportive network we will cultivate the environment that the South, and particularly London, is starting to enjoy. Who knows, maybe we can join those businesses on the Stonewall 100 in the near future. To do so, it is most important that non-LGBT lawyers make it part of their firm’s vision.
Ask your firm to create the legal atmosphere that allows for openness. The more open we allow lawyers to be, “the more commonplace it becomes, the more acceptable it becomes, the less curious it becomes, the less different it becomes”. However, this can only happen if we all make collaboration, diversity and inclusion part of every firm and part of legal culture in the North East. This will be to the benefit of current employees, but we must also remember that it will encourage more diverse candidates to enter the Northern legal world. It is for us to show there are places in the North East for LGBT people at the top.
Everybody with a stake in the legal profession needs to engage with LGBT initiatives to ensure they are effective. Let this be the start of yours and your firm’s LGBT initiative.
Louise Asquith is a trainee solicitor, LGBT rights activist and founder of North East Lesbian and Gay Legal Association (LAGLA).
LAGLA will be launched on 21 November 2015, at Northern Stage, Stage 3, Newcastle upon Tyne. The event is entitled Support Diversity. It is a night for every legal worker, and certainly not just for LGBT lawyers.
For more information on Support Diversity, click here. The event is FREE although a donation to the Albert Kennedy Trust is requested.