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Not being yourself wastes valuable energy

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After having children, Hogan Lovells partner Elaine Penrose decided to be completely open about her sexuality at work — including with clients

The wedding of Becky and Elaine on 24 July 2010

I don’t think my sexuality has impacted on any of the outcomes of my career. I’m a lawyer who does financial services litigation who has gone on to become a partner. The fact that I am gay is just one aspect of my identity.

But part of being a good lawyer is about being yourself. As you become more senior, one of your roles is to bring in business. You find that people don’t instruct you just because of your technical legal ability. A lot of it comes down to the relationships you develop with clients. That’s where being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) can have an impact as there may be a nervousness in revealing that aspect of yourself which could inhibit the development of that all-important client rapport.

How do I manage conversations where the subject of my other half may come up?

When I was starting my career, all my fellow trainees knew because I’d had a girlfriend at law school. But most other people in the firm wouldn’t have known. It becomes an outing event each time you say that your partner is a woman. That uses energy. At the same time, I’ve never lied about my sexuality. It is just that you are always bracing yourself for a reaction when you say “she” rather than “he”. That may be my own issue rather than anyone else’s, because there has not been a single time when my sexuality has had any impact internally.

I’ve been at the firm for 15 years now. In 2009, I got engaged to Becky, my now wife. That was a pinch point, because suddenly everyone knew. When people see a rock on a woman’s finger they are going to ask who the’ lucky guy’ is. And I didn’t want to have to explain myself every time. So I sent everyone in my department an invite to my engagement party with a picture of Becky and me on it! It was a way of making sure people knew once and for all without making a drama of the ‘outing’ itself. A couple of PAs came into my office and said, “Elaine, I had no idea!”

So that was a bit of a turning point for me, just being out there and not having to explain myself anymore. I made partner in 2012. At that point it occurred to me that I hadn’t been involved in the firm’s LGBT network at all. I decided to join, not because I wanted to hang out with other gay people at work (although they are all very nice!), but because I felt some responsibility to show junior people that senior people in the firm are gay and it’s OK.

Now I’m seeing trainees coming through who are much more prepared to be open about who they are right from the start. I didn’t have that when applying. I managed, but it was tiring. It’s important to be yourself at work because then you can dedicate yourself to doing a good job rather than worrying about when to say “they” rather than “she” in a conversation that could happen at any moment.

Having children has made me even more open, especially with clients. It’s potentially tricky with clients, because they give you work. You don’t want to risk the small possibility of them not giving you work because you are gay. So I tended to avoid the topic. The downside to that is it makes building relationships harder.

Now, having recently returned from maternity leave, I’m just completely open about myself, my partner and my twins. I’m not going to shy away from it. It has been a liberating experience and entirely positive.

My advice to LGBT students is to use all the information they can get about firms before applying. None have a global culture of homophobia, but not all are actively pro-diversity, and there are still individuals who hold homophobic views. I know people who have been at firms where as trainees they have heard their supervisor come out with homophobic comments. That obviously makes the trainee terrified to reveal who they are because that person is writing their appraisal.

If you were to ever encounter a problem and you are at a firm that actively goes out and promotes itself as pro-LGBT, you know they wouldn’t stand for it — so those homophobic individuals would be rooted out pretty quickly. But the bottom line is to find a place where you don’t have to expend energy not being yourself — luckily, through events such as DiversCity, that objective is much more easily attained these days.

Hogan Lovells is one of 11 firms participating in the DiversCity student LGBT event tomorrow. Elaine has assisted with the event since 2011 by joining partner panels, networking sessions, and will participate in the ‘My Career Path’ session.

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