The legal profession has made a huge amount of progress in its treatment of gay lawyers, but tricky issues remain, reports Alex Aldridge as he visits one of the leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) networks in the City.
In his recent Rainbow Lecture on Diversity, Lord Neuberger rather skipped over the issue sexuality, stating that he was “unaware of any discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the legal world”.
Although Neuberger went on to acknowledge that “there must be pockets of prejudice”, some in the legal LGBT community have privately suggested that the lack of attention paid to them relative to other minority groups felt like a bit of a snub from the Supreme Court president.
Others, though, took Neuberger’s message as a reflection of how far the legal profession has travelled in its attitude towards sexuality. That’s the view held by Norton Rose Fulbright diversity manager Sacha de Klerk, who points to the fact that a whopping 10% of this year’s Stonewall list of the top 100 gay-friendly employers are law firms — a figure made all the more astounding given that no law firms featured in the list at all until 2008 — as evidence of the strides that have been made.
“The legal sector has made considerable progress over the last few years, over-taking many sectors, including the financial sector, in terms of representation in the Stonewall list,” she says.
Certainly, big international law firms have come a particularly long way on the issue of LGBT, with the rampant homophobia of the 1980s and 1990s giving way to millennial enlightenment. Some of these organisations have become such leaders in supporting gay people that even undercurrents of prejudice, which have remained among some of the older generation of partners, are now fading, says Norton Rose Fulbright LGBT network co-chair Jamie Morton. He cites backing from the very top of his firm as crucial to the setting of the right tone.
“Our global chair, Stephen Parish, was instrumental in helping us to establish our network in the first place and he regularly attends events, alongside other senior members of the firm. Such senior buy-in is crucial,” he says.
But how do international firms continue to promote LGBT rights in their offices in countries where being gay is against the law?
The first step, says de Clerk, is to “ensure that our lawyers are not penalised for being unable to take an assignment” in a country with homophobic laws. If they do opt to take the assignment, the firm does its best to “create a safe haven” for them, often by working in conjunction with clients, who tend to be international organisations too. Of the overriding philosophy applied to a delicate area, she adds: “We can’t change the law, but we can promote our values and our culture to all our offices globally.”
Another issue law firms face is how to keep happy the various different groups under the LGBT umbrella, with City legal LGBT networks having acquired a reputation for being dominated by gay men and often leaving lesbians, in particular, feeling marginalised. Indeed, such is the tension that several law firms have seen lesbian groups breakaway from firm LGBT networks.
This is something that Morton is keen to avoid. “It can be challenging but it is worth working hard to ensure there is something for everyone,” he says, explaining that the network is careful to run a mixture of events, not just evening drinks, and maintain an equal spread of representation among those charged with running the group.
Of course, at a time of increasingly progressive attitudes towards sexuality in British society, underlined by the first same-sex marriages which took place over the weekend, some gay lawyers don’t feel the need to join LGBT groups. Indeed, looking ahead, law firms may find they have to refine their message on sexuality to accommodate a higher level of mainstream acceptance enjoyed by gay people.
For the moment, though, with the previously-referred-to undercurrents of homophobia still present in the legal profession, that happy scenario appears to be some way off. In the meantime, however actively gay lawyers use LGBT networks, and however imperfect some may be, their existence is crucial. Adds Morton:
“I do think it’s incredibly important to have visibility, especially for junior members who are finding their feet in the global legal environment. Even if you don’t come, the point is that you know the network is there.”
Listen to Aldridge’s discussion in full with de Klerk and Morton (pictured) in the podcast below.