LGBT in law: what next?

It is tempting to believe that the prejudice and problems experienced by gay people have now largely been consigned to the history books: an ugly issue which no modern professional would ever have to deal with. That’s wishful thinking however, and the reasons for it are more complex than straightforward homophobia.

Anyone looking for proof that gay men and women still encounter problems because of their sexuality need not look any further back than 10 years, when BP chief executive Lord Browne was outed in a Daily Mail kiss-and-tell story and sought to cover up his private life by committing perjury. He subsequently resigned, his ordeal stemming from a lifetime lived in the closet, fearful that to come out would spell the end for him.

Despite the high profile resignation, no such doom awaited him. In a letter to the Financial Times four days afterwards, scores of high-powered City colleagues added their signatures to a statement which read: “Sir, We wish to place on public record our support now and in the future for our friend John Browne and to thank him for his immense and unique contribution to business, the economy and to art, culture and the environment. We wish him well, stand by him and look forward to working with him in the years ahead.”

Still, in a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Browne admitted that although the majority of people he comes into contact with take no issue with his sexuality, he has encountered, ‘“tight smiles from businesspeople who clearly “want to avoid me”.’

Perception problems

The City is often portrayed as more traditional than many sectors of society – do its views on sexuality conform to that model too?

“The City should no longer be considered traditional,” argues Clifford Chance partner Narind Singh. “It is a progressive place and there is a genuine belief in almost all organisations that being diverse is important to be able to retain the best talent and win the best work. I would say overall law certainly is an LGBT-friendly profession.” Most large firms now have numerous diversity groups, the Stonewall list of top LGBT-friendly organisations is heavily spotted with legal businesses, and gay judges march in London Pride – something that would have been unheard of not long ago.

Meanwhile, Parliament’s 2013 approval of the divisive gay marriage bill shows how far the law itself has progressed in protecting gay citizens’ rights. Although plenty opposed the bill, a Conservative-led government stood firm.

Just ten years before that, same-sex parents did not even have the same right to parental leave as straight couples.

But despite the advances that have been made, perceptions of the law remain a problem. “We get the same amount of people who think that we recruit only from Oxford and Cambridge: it’s a personal battle we are fighting continuously,” says Toby Horner, a member of the graduate recruitment team at Clifford Chance. “But anyone who spends time in the firm sees the breadth and variety of the people who are here. There is certainly still a gap the way some people view us or expect the firm to be, and the way it really is.”

Toby Horner

One of the biggest problems for students is that law firms’ websites tend to represent every different type of person and it can be hard to distinguish what is marketing and what is real life,” he continues. “That’s why we try to be visible on campus as well. I am very lucky that we don’t have to search hard to find LGBT people to represent the firm at universities: they want to volunteer, so it is never a difficult thing for us to do.”

Career questions

In 2012, gay legal network InterLaw commissioned a study which found that “the more an individual diverges from the elite-educated, white, male norm the less well-paid and the less satisfied they will be with their career progress.” That being the case, lesbians arguably have it harder than gay men when it comes to the workplace. Female partners at top firms are already hard to come by (they make up an average 15 per cent at most firms) and so there are simply fewer lesbians than gay men at firms.

A positive LGBT outlook was a key element of what Clifford Chance associate Laura Whiteway-Bell was looking for in a firm when she first when she was first applying to training contracts. “I didn’t want to be in a place where had to hide who I was – I spent too much time and energy doing that as a teenager and I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate 100 per cent on my job if I was worrying about the reaction I may get to coming out,” she says.

“I was a bit apprehensive about coming out during my vac scheme at CC, but mostly because I knew any negative reaction would be a deal-breaker, despite the firm’s other attractions. But everyone was really positive and helpful and the HR team put me in touch with the firm’s LGBT network within the first few days. In fact, apart from my first ever job when I was 16, I have always been out at work and never had a negative reaction.”

The future

What is the next step for LGBT diversity in law? What can be achieved in the next 10 years? And with large firms like Clifford Chance increasingly sophisticated in their thinking when it comes to inclusion, is there any more that can realistically be done?

“Clifford Chance, and from what I know other large firms, are truly committed to inclusion and this commitment generally pervades the firm. However, there is always more that can be done,” says Singh. “One area where we have had less success is trans inclusion and I know we are not alone in this. We are trying very hard to fix this but progress is relatively slow and I think it will take a little more time for all of our trans colleagues to feel as empowered as our LGB employees.”

“We are seeing that the question of transgender visibility has become much more prominent now,” agrees Horner. “We may well start to see more trans students on campus, and the next level as a society will be creating the acceptance for those people to begin to feel comfortable in society and the workplace.”

Profile: Narind Singh, partner, Clifford Chance

What is your background? How did you come to law? 

I studied law at university and at first I wanted to become a barrister. I nonetheless did a couple of summer vacation schemes, as well as a mini pupillage (which I enjoyed thoroughly), and changed my mind.  The thrill of working on large international transactions in a City environment appealed to me. I graduated from university in 1999, finished law school in 2000, took six months off to travel around India and started my training contract in March 2001.   

What are your early memories of Clifford Chance? Was LGBT diversity something that you were thinking about, particularly, when applying for training contracts?

My first impression of Clifford Chance was that it was big but cohesive, and international in outlook. The training was rigorous but at the same time we had a lot of fun. A large proportion of my fellow vac schemers and trainee intake were of different nationalities and from different backgrounds more generally.  This has consistently been the case since then and it has enriched our environment.  

There is (and was at the time) no Clifford Chance “type” other than the kind of person who thrives in a diverse environment and takes full advantage of international opportunities. I didn’t specifically think about LGBT diversity when applying and I doubt many of my peers would have done – in those days the LGBT communities at university and in the City weren’t as prominent or vocal as we are today.  If I were applying now, it would be at the forefront of my mind. 

Have you always been out in the workplace – did you have any anxieties about being LGBT

I wasn’t out when I started my career.  In those days there were very few visibly out LGBT people in the City.  However, it wasn’t fear of my colleagues’ reactions or any perceived impact on my career that stopped me. There were other personal reasons. I eventually overcame these at which point I rushed to proactively tell every person I knew in the firm.

Reactions ranged from “you’ve come out of what?”, to “I had no idea (accompanied by a smirk)” to “well done but where is that document you were supposed to have given me this morning?”. I came out to each close client at the first opportunity that presented itself and still do the same with new clients. This process was uplifting for me.

I find that being open is positive for building professional relationships with colleagues and clients and therefore helps your career. I can honestly say there has never been any drama.  Reactions have been universally positive.

Are there any specific difficulties you have had to overcome?

Not that I am aware of. I suppose people might assume that you are treated differently (in a bad way) or have struggled as a result of being from a different ethnic background or being LGBT. Perhaps to a certain extent that assumption is true but I don’t think you can jump into a person’s mind and assume bias.  Of course bias does exist and if you feel negativity, build the courage to challenge it as soon as you can or talk to someone you trust.    

How important is it for senior LGBT lawyers to be visibly ‘out’? Especially in a firm that talks a lot about diversity and has plenty of gay lawyers, should it be an obligation for every gay lawyer to be vocal?

Personally, I think it is immensely important for senior LGBT lawyers to be out at work and I feel it is my responsibility to be out. Having role models encourages LGBT colleagues to be themselves and realise that identity should not affect career progression. That said LGBT colleagues should never feel pressured to come out. It is a very personal choice and there are often a variety of reasons why people stay in the closet that are not related to work.   

What advice would you give to junior LGBT lawyers?

It is an expression that I keep using but always try and be yourself.  Being out is empowering and rewarding. Cast away any fears that it might have a negative effect on your career; if anything it should have a positive effect.

If you ever encounter any difficulties don’t assume you have to deal with them on your own – there is a great deal of support amongst the LGBT legal community and from our straight allies. Bias and disrespectful behaviour are simply not tolerated. Above all, enjoy yourself – we’re lucky to be working with intelligent and urbane colleagues in a safe and secure environment.