My Pride Story: LGBT students must ask firms the challenging questions

Vera Vollmann is a trainee solicitor at Slaughter and May.

Born and bred in Germany, I went on to live and study in the Netherlands, France and Ireland before moving to the UK. Feeling a bit lost during my school years and trying to test the waters a little by pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone, I felt that moving between different countries and cultures helped me build a strong inner compass when it comes to my own core values and convictions.

Falling within the ‘B’ in LGBT, the main challenge I have faced is invisibility. People will assume that I am gay or straight depending on the gender of my partner at the time. Some would say that being Bi, rather paradoxically, is difficult for people within the LGT community and beyond to understand because it defeats the idea of binary thinking, trying to place people neatly into one box or the other.

For me joining PRISM, Slaughter and May’s LGBT network, was one way of coming out as bisexual.  Rather than taking on a negative narrative when it comes to questions regarding my personal life (which might be something as simple as ‘What did you do this weekend?’) and feeling like I need to correct people’s assumptions, getting involved in the LGBT network and being a visible champion for inclusion has put a positive spin on the question of sexuality – framed as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Back when I was scouting law firms and I was considering to apply for a training contract in the UK, the most important factor informing my decision (or, some might say, my gut feeling) to apply for a particular firm was to find signposts signalling what values the firm believes in.

In that way, meeting LGBT role models from the firm’s partnership at a reception held at my University in Ireland and finding out about PRISM cemented my decision to apply for a training contract at Slaughter and May.  Knowing that there were visible LGBT partners at Slaughter and May completely challenged my perceptions. This experience, for me, was a signpost for authenticity and diversity being core values of the firm. Thankfully, working at Slaughter and May has dispelled any myths I had heard before about what the culture in a corporate City law firm would be like.

I believe that, among other things, fostering authenticity and visibility at the workplace is crucially important to nurture a workforce that is happy to come into work, brings passion to the job, and builds stronger and authentic relationships with colleagues. While some people believe that your private life should be kept private, I think that there is a fundamental difference between your private life and your personal life.

Rather than leaving your personal life, together with your character and coat, by the door when coming into work, I feel that it is those facets which give people a sense of meaning and ownership, making them great at what they do. Supporting authenticity and visibility therefore goes beyond LGBT and encapsulates the idea of inclusion of all shapes and forms of personalities.

Since joining PRISM last year I have had the opportunity to organise lunch time talks with LGBT role models, set-up a firm-wide celebration of Pride, and network with our European Best Friend firms and other companies outside of the legal sector to share our learning.  For me, the most inspiring PRISM moment to date was inviting Ayla Holdom to the firm to mark Trans Day of Visibility. Ayla, a decorated officer, and Britain’s first and only openly transgender military pilot, shared her own personal story along with her thoughts on the importance of authenticity in the workplace. I think it is fair to say that most, if not all, of the people attending Ayla’s talk left with a true sense of inspiration and it encouraged many to think about what more they could do to be an ally to LGBT people, particularly those from the trans community.

The work of PRISM since it was formed over six years ago has helped LGBT inclusion become a visible part of our firm’s culture. People throughout the firm, whether they are LGBT or not, are more relaxed about LGBT issues and are keen to get involved in our activities and show their support. In January, we were named in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers which is an indication of the progress we have made in this area and something that I, and the rest of the firm, are very proud of. For me, being part of PRISM means being part of something that is making a difference.

Based on my personal experience, if there is any piece of advice that I would like to give to others considering to apply for a job in the City it would be this: look out for signposts of your own core values and how they are being embraced by the firm. Be your authentic self and be proactive.  Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions about the firm and their values.