Open minds, open doors

Diversity throws up all sorts of challenges. One managing partner recently asked in genuine puzzlement: “How many gays is a firm meant to have? What’s the quota on this kind of thing? And what do I do if I don’t have enough gays? Where do I recruit?”You may smile, but he is not alone in his bafflement. The question is not whether gay employees are actively oppressed by law firms. Rather it’s about creating an environment where all staff can feel comfortable in talking about their life outside work.

Most firms have investigated what they need to do on issues surrounding gender (a retention issue) or ethnicity (a recruitment issue, particularly at the trainee level), and many are genuinely moving beyond tokenism. However, sexual orientation does not fall into easy categories.

At the very least, enlightened self-interest should dictate that some action is needed. You only have to look at Sullivan & Cromwell, where a former gay employee is suing the firm for discrimination. Sullivan has counter-sued, but most UK law firms shudder at the thought of their cultures being laid open to public view in such a way.

As far as we know no other institutions have focused on sexual orientation as a diversity issue, although a growing number of FTSE100 companies are investigating their law firms’ records on diversity in general. Last year The Lawyer revealed (13 February 2006) that Barclays general counsel Mark Harding was about to demand statistics on gender and ethnicity from his panel firms. JPMorgan’s move pushes the debate one step further.

So, will JPMorgan require statistics on sexual orientation from its panel firms? After all, if firms are being asked to confirm to their clients what their record is on diversity, it’s logical that there is statistical evidence – and that therefore applies to sexual orientation.

But very few firms have embarked upon such monitoring because of concerns over privacy. The few that have – Simmons and Pinsent Masons, for example – say that it has not presented any problems and most respondents answer such questions voluntarily.

JPMorgan is using a carrot and a stick. The carrot is an educational one: by teaming up with Stonewall the bank will be giving practical advice on what to do. The stick is implicit: if firms don’t want to abide by the bank’s stated values, then it may have ramifications for the amount of work they get.

That’s some incentive.