27 April 2009 | By Luke McLeod-Roberts
28 February 2014
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The effective representation of minorities can be patchy in any sector, but when it comes to sexual orientation, is the legal profession falling behind?
If you are average in ability, or seen as average, it’s easier for people to hold your sexuality against you. If you’re making money, nobody can touch you.” These are the sentiments of one gay former City tax lawyer.
But for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) trainees or junior lawyers in transactional practices, the current financial crisis might be making it hard to shine.
“The culture in some departments I’ve been in has been quite laddish. But by opting out you can find yourself on the outside and by doing that you disadvantage yourself when it comes to work allocation and deciding who’s going to be laid off,” the lawyer adds.
LGBT lawyers share common experiences with other minority groups in the profession, including black and minority ethnic (BME) lawyers and women.
Although progress for female and BME lawyers has admittedly been slow, there are a handful of female lawyers in senior positions among the top 200 firms, including a number of managing partners. And the profession recently celebrated the appointment of a London office’s first black boss Trevor James at Morrison & Foerster (MoFo).
MoFo has long been known for its progressive culture in Keith Wetmore it has an openly gay chair but that is out in California. Try to find even one openly gay or lesbian managing partner of a UK firm and you are going to struggle.
That said, in terms of the legal protection for gays and lesbians, the UK is more advanced than the US. So is anything holding this group back careerwise?
Hoping to finding the answer, the Law Society has teamed up with LGBT network InterLaw Diversity Forum and gay rights group Stonewall to conduct a major survey of the sector.
The survey, launched on 23 April, asks 35 questions looking at the correlation between sexuality and career advancement (The Lawyer, 20 April).
The pink plateau
Evidence of the socalled ‘pink plateau’ the gay version of the glass ceiling can possibly be seen in the decision by some gay and lesbian lawyers to leave private practice and set up on their own. Andrea Woelke is a gay lawyer and sole practitioner who runs Alternative Family Law, a family practice that specialises in civil partnership law. Although his decision was motivated largely by financial reasons, he was dissuaded from working in the City because of its macho culture.
“After training I made a decision not to go into the City,” he says. “It wasn’t the kind of climate I wanted to work in. It’s very ‘boysy’. Some gay people who work in the City don’t feel part of it.”
Stephen Shea, tax partner and founder member of Clifford Chance’s LGBT network Arcus, thinks that it is not possible to paint all firms with the same brush.
“It depends upon your markets,” he argues. “An important part of the magic circle’s market is investment banks and for the last three to four years investment banks have had very active promotion of LGBT networks.”
It is true that investment banks along with the big four accountancy firms have led the way on diversity initiatives, stipulating that law firms demonstrate their positive credentials during tender processes.
But Clifford Chance, and much of the top 20 for that matter, are global entities. They have clients that are based in or operate in jurisdictions where homosexuality is circumscribed not only via ingrained social and cultural pressures, but by law.
Another gay Clifford Chance employee, who is a member of Arcus, says that there are limits to his openness. “I’m currently part of the firm’s [overseas] business development effort. My sexuality, if made known to potential clients and local counsel, could significantly affect my firm’s relationships if contact grows. I’d be more concerned about displeasing a potential client and would prioritise that over any ’personal emancipation’ agenda.”
But one lesbian lawyer working at a top 20 firm in Dubai thinks that a balance needs to be struck between local values and individual wellbeing. “My firm hasn’t really addressed the situation where it asks employees to move to a jurisdiction which isn’t advanced on LGBT issues. I had a long conversation about this with the diversity partner, but nothing ever came of it,” she says.
As one gay legal source says: “It’s a risky thing in a commercial environment to call yourself or your firm ‘gayfriendly’. Lawyers’ business is about getting fee income in through the door, they don’t want to do anything that would adversely impact upon that.”
Many heterosexual colleagues might wonder what all the fuss is about. Professionalism should be at the forefront of client contact why the need to go shouting your sexuality out from the rooftops?
But that is missing the point. Some gay and lesbian lawyers find themselves having to repeatedly come out of the closet to clients when conversation turns to spouses and children. And that might dissuade them from doing the kind of legwork needed to foster client relationships.
So although many firms do have progressive diversity agendas and roughly 15 per cent of the top UK 200 have their own LGBT networks, a failure to engage with some of these ‘soft’ issues is solidifying the pink plateau.
Jo Keddie, head of employment at Dawsons Solicitors, says: “We have experience that a number of firms which profess to have diversity policies haven’t carried them out in practice. The more enlightened firms are putting in place training for management and core values, which helps to mitigate risk. In these cases management committees take core values into account when making appraisals and this translates into remuneration.”
The gay tax lawyer agrees. “My impression is that law firm adherence to LGBT networks is partly lip service, but there isn’t a change in mentality among the senior partners, where it needs to be,” he says.
Carolyn Lee, global head of diversity and inclusion at Herbert Smith and cochair of the firm’s 35member LGBT network, says that having two senior partners as ‘cosponsors’ of the firm’s group is essential.
“The two cosponsors, one straight and one gay, are there as a sounding board for the chairs,” she says. “They provide visible senior leadership and show that the network is not just apart from the firm. It gives some validity to what we’re doing.”
One major gap in the Law Society’s survey is on how much respondents are earning. If gay and lesbian lawyers are sidelined either by choice or imposition from the more profitable practice areas, what impact does this have on overall remuneration? Do traditional prejudices of LGBT lawyers being weaker put them at a disadvantage in pay negotiations?
Lesbians, who already face a genderbased glass ceiling and who are conspicuously absent from senior management positions, experience a doublesided discrimination.
But there is some suggestion that gay and lesbian lawyers are not using their sexuality sufficiently to their advantage. If old boystyle bonding sessions are inimical to many gay and lesbian members of the profession, the emergence of LGBT networks such as InterLaw which has around 400 members and its banking counterpart InterBank provide not just support and advocacy but opportunities to meet clients and in some cases to have access to management.
Indeed, being gay can be a unique selling point. Woelke set up his family practice in 2005. It is no coincidence that was the year that the Civil Partnership Law came into effect.
“I’d been lobbying and had made lots of contacts in the area,” confirms Woelke. But does he think he is in danger of being commercially pigeonholed because of his sexuality?
“I may lose one or two clients who may be put off. But I think that in family law some people would prefer someone who is gay, because they are a little bit more detached,” he argues.
Another gay member of the profession, totally deadpan, says: “The flipside is that gays and lesbians are unlikely to take maternity or paternity leave and are often highbillers. Just don’t get them on a Monday morning.”
This may be cold comfort to gay and lesbian lawyers who are feeling frustrated with entrenched forms of discrimination in the profession. But with the emergence of the Law Society project, gay and lesbian lawyers will for the first time have wideranging and systematic data with which to challenge that discrimination.
A personal view
In today’s more enlightened world, the leading employers recognise that to bring the best out in people - and in our case this means to deliver excellence in professional service standards - you need to treat people with respect and give them the room to be creative, innovative and work hard.
You achieve that by applauding who they are and tapping into the rich cultural diversity that comes together to make up the community that the legal sector is trying
When I came out to my line manager he, with the best of intentions, advised me to keep quiet about my sexual orientation as it could prejudice my career. This was in the early 1990s and was a low time for me. I felt unable to be open about the little things that matter in building up trust and rapport with those around you, like what you did at the weekend.
It is such a normal part of day-to-day life to share just small things about your personal life, even in a professional context, and if you cannot even do that, then you feel isolated and unable to give your best.
Looking back, it was also the time in my career when my performance reviews demonstrated that I was not giving my best. The general disillusionment I was feeling led me to take advice from the then embryonic Stonewall, whose executive director at the time said: “Don’t put yourself in a ghetto by joining a niche gay practice, stay mainstream, focus on being great at what you do, earn respect for that and then change the firm from within.”
So, the answer for me was to get on with my job as a property lawyer, demonstrate my professional abilities and then come out from a position of strength in
I am delighted to say that I don’t believe anyone in our firm would have to think or behave like that any more.
State of Transition
Although most LGBT networks at individual law firms profess to be open to the entire community, there is a conspicuous absence of openly transgender lawyers in these groups. This can sometimes make it seem as though there’s a silent ‘T’ in the acronym.
InterLaw founder Daniel Winterfeldt says the network he runs is very open to transgendered individuals, should they want to join, but that its membership is a reflection of a relatively conservative profession which transgendered people might shun.
However, with gender reassignment surgery becoming increasingly available to men and women in their 20s, the transition between sexes might have taken place before forging a career in the law, in which case their colleagues and employers might not be aware of their birth gender.