Bridging the gap

Forming a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender network will ensure that all of a firm’s lawyers get the support they need to do a good job. By Stephen Shea

Lesbian and gay people are constantly reminded that ‘coming out is a lifelong process’. I have been ‘out’ among my partners and colleagues at Clifford Chance for the past 12 years, but I could not have foreseen the sense of liberation that I felt and the new horizons that opened when the firm formed a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) network.

Every law firm needs to have, or at least be actively involved in, an LGBT network, providing a support group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who work at all levels and in all roles within one or more law firms.

Law firms have accepted the need to create an inclusive working environment in a diverse society, and this means supporting minorities. LGBT people are now recognised as a significant minority in all areas of society. Consequently, a firm that is committed to fostering an inclusive working environment will wish to care for its own LGBT minority.

Clifford Chance does not as yet have any transgender people in its group, and this article therefore generally speaks from an LGB standpoint.

The vast majority of LGB people are comfortable with their gender of birth and there is no inherent link between issues concerning sexual orientation and gender orientation. Notwithstanding this, LGB people feel a strong bond with the transgender community.

Historically, transgender people have moved with particular ease in the LGB community, and the two communities are united by the nature of the prejudices that we face and by their open-minded and open-hearted attitude to life and to people. Clifford Chance’s LGBT network is looking forward eagerly to welcoming our first transgender participant.

LGB identity
LGB people have a distinct cultural identity. As is common in a diverse society, the LGB identity overlaps with various other cultural profiles that different LGB people have, but most LGB people are aware of, and cherish, their association with the specific LGB culture.

Sexual orientation is only one part of this: just as integral are shared rites of passage and other key life experiences, vocabulary, aspirations, ideas of the acceptable and unacceptable and, not least, sense of humour. In particular, there is the proud history of our past and ongoing liberation movement.

Key parts of all of these factors tend to be markedly different for LGB people and straight people, and we enter into every type of interpersonal communication and interaction, above all in the workplace of a ‘people’ business, such as a law firm.

For straight people, all of these factors in their personal make-up are supported automatically by the social fabric, and this support is vital to building successful careers and personal relationships. For LGB people, these factors have historically been an embarrassment and even a taboo in the wider society and, where this is the case, it places a huge obstacle in their way, both in career terms and in the formation of personal relationships.

Thankfully, many LGB people as individuals, with the increasing support of their friends and family members in the straight world, have largely emerged from these shadows. However, from the point of view of the group as a whole, the fundamental institutionalised support is still not there as it is for straight people.

LGB people need just as much as straight people to be assured of equal support and respect for their cultural identity. We require this both as a matter of basic human values and so that we can function fully as human beings and make the fullest possible contribution in their working lives.

That is the first reason why an LGB network is needed in a law firm: to make up for what is still lacking by way of such support in the wider social fabric, and thereby place LGBs on an equal – and no more than equal – footing with those around them.

Best practice
Before establishing the network, Clifford Chance consulted at some length with peer groups in other organisations and with Stonewall, the UK’s leading lobbying and support group for LGBT people. Therefore the group’s choice of structure may be of wider interest as a rough template of best practice for this type of network.

The group comprises a complete cross-section of roles and seniorities across the firm, and aims for a democratic and egalitarian ethos. This has allowed us to gain a number of insights, that may be more widely relevant, quite apart from the sheer refreshment of meeting people whom one would be very unlikely to encounter in any other way. This is at least one immediate benefit that is likely to flow from the formation of such a network.

Within our membership, we have four sub-groups, dealing with certain ideas.

• Policy matters: specifically those affecting LGBT people in the firm internally. This means everything from checking that internal forms contain a box for ‘civil partner’ to procedures for dealing with alleged discrimination and assisting with policy and initiatives relating to recruitment.

• Support: providing personal back-up for people with special needs and challenges, including an optional ‘buddy’ system for new joiners.

• Social: arranging internal and external events for members, clients and others, and organising special events such as visiting speakers and art exhibitions.

• External affairs: building up contacts with peer groups in client organisations and other professional firms, and involvement in LGBT-related pro bono and human rights initiatives.

For businesses generally there can easily be a gap between a business genuinely caring for its people and the people actually feeling that we are cared for. The solution to this is accurate focus and attention to detail and, when it comes to looking after the LGBT minority, an LGBT network is the obvious source for guidance on such details.

For example, if someone were interviewing for a job at your firm, and the person mentioned that she was a mother with a lesbian partner and three children, would your interviewers know how to respond? Would we ever have knowingly met such a person before, or indeed an LGBT person of any kind?

A firm should bear in mind that impressions formed by potential recruits during this process will often be among the deepest that we ever have of the firm, whether we join the firm or go elsewhere. Would it be worth, for example, ensuring that all of your interviewers attended at least one drinks evening with the LGBT network, just to loosen some inhibitions?

Combine business and pleasure: if you haven’t already, form your LGBT network now.

Stephen Shea is a partner at Clifford Chance

To read the earlier news article on Clifford Chance’s LGBT network, click here.