Out in force

JPMorgan is leading the way with its inclusive approach towards gay workers. In the wake of a critical Law Society report, what can law firms learn??n??

The only gay in the “City?” reads the poster. “Hardly.” When JPMorgan managing director and assistant general counsel Tim Hailes decided to head the bank’s 14-strong gay and lesbian steering committee, being coy was the last thing on his mind. The poster might be humorous, but the campaign is serious.

The JPMorgan initiative, dubbed ‘Pride’, also includes networking drinks; postings on the employee intranet; interbank drinks every third Thursday of the month; attendance at the ‘Out And Equal’ conference in Chicago and ‘Out In The City’ conference in November for lesbian and gay students (a joint event between a handful of investment banks); sponsoring a lesbian or gay employee on the 2006 Stonewall Leadership Programme at Henley Management College; an employee networking group website; and mentoring opportunities.

“I am confidently out and have been since I joined JPMorgan,” Hailes says. “Being out doesn’t mean, however, that I’m ostentatious about my sexuality across the dealing room. It’s irrelevant to my ability to do my job as the senior counsel on one of our trading floors.”

The way to support lesbian and gay employees, he says, is to be visible in the first place.

“If you’re not ‘out’ at work, then an enormous amount of intellectual and emotional energy is spent obfuscating,” he argues. “Conversations about the weekend have to be neutralised – ‘my partner’, ‘the other half’ – rather than just saying it like it is. Some people may assume opposite gender partnerships with this sort of terminology because that’s what’s familiar.

“It can put quite intolerable pressure on the individual – leaving aside the fact we already work in a high-pressure and demanding environment – to have to juggle these kind of things on top of the day job.”

Law Society research
The timing of the move is impeccable. Hailes, who trained at Wilde Sapte and spent several years at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft as a structured finance lawyer before moving to JPMorgan seven years ago, is the diversity representative on the global legal group. One of the reasons why the bank’s initiative is so eye-catching is because it coincides with the Law Society’s publication of research on the experience of gay and lesbian solicitors.

National press coverage of the Law Society report focused on how uncomfortable some gay lawyers felt with the City lap-dancing culture.

However, that was a throwaway remark in the 80-page document. In fact, the research is a sober and nuanced examination of the various pressures on gay and lesbian solicitors, and its findings chime with the recommendations made by gay equality group Stonewall.

As yet law firms have not adopted such intensive strategies as the banks’ – a point made by Stephen Frost, director of workplace programmes at Stonewall.

“Law firms are slightly behind the curve,” he says, adding: “It’s not about being nice to gay people. If gay people are bad at their job you sack them like anyone else. Whether someone’s out or not is not my business, but what is my business is to create an environment where you can be out if you want to be out.”

However, in Hailes’ opinion, there is much work to do in law firms. “Would gay and lesbian staff know where to go in one of the magic circle firms if they wanted mentoring, networking or resource?” he asks. “Where are the role models? The support?

“Employee networking groups can play an important role in creating a culture of tolerance and inclusion. The investment banks don’t have it all right – but I see resources and opportunities presented there which often don’t seem to exist in private practice.”

Diversity Champions
The question is how to create such an environment without being overly politically correct and thereby alienating sympathy, and without patronising gay and lesbian lawyers (and indeed gay and lesbian non-fee-earners). A small number of law firms are turning to Stonewall for advice.

Diversity Champions, Stonewall’s good practice forum for blue-chip and major public sector employers, now numbers 200 members and includes the likes of IBM, British Airways, Centrica, Coca-Cola, Ernst & Young and banks such as Barclays, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse. There are seven law firms on the programme: Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons.

“We find Stonewall incredibly useful – it’s very City-focused and easy to deal with, very professional. Its questionnaire acts almost like a prompt,” says Simmons HR head Anita Tovell.

Stonewall strongly recommends an examination of employee benefits and policies to begin with. Pinsents property head Adrian Barlow believes this is an essential first step. “The first question for firms is: have they equalised everything such as spousal and pension rights,” he says. “These are easy wins a firm can do.”

Pinsents joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme 15 months ago as part of a general examination of its corporate values, but there were existing contacts between the two organisations: projects partner David Isaac is chair of Stonewall. With at least two senior figures – Barlow and Isaacs – as out gay men, the firm had early management buy-in on the issue.

Both Barlow and Isaac see the issues around sexual orientation in the workplace as part of a wider debate. “It’s not just about lesbian, gay and bisexual solicitors, it’s about using Stonewall’s expertise to roll out a wider diversity programme,” says Isaac. “Stonewall has proved to be a catalyst for other diversity issues in the workplace and has been funnelling that in a very effective way.”

To date Pinsents and Herbert Smith stand out as having made steps in creating employee networking groups. Herbert Smith took on Carolyn Lee earlier this year as its head of inclusivity. Lee is formerly of Deutsche Bank and helped set up employee networks there. “It’s very early stages where I know a number of lesbian and gay employees in Herbert Smith and have had a discussion with some of them to gauge their appetites for this,” Lee says. “You have to build in time for individuals to become comfortable.”

Interestingly, neither Pinsents nor Herbert Smith believe that it is a positive step to have non-gay and lesbian individuals involved in getting the groups off the ground. “One of the lessons that investment banks have learnt is that you don’t have to be a GLB [gay lesbian or bisexual] individual to sponsor the group,” says Lee.

Not everyone sees networking as the obvious answer. Natalie Gamble, a private client solicitor at the Southampton office of Lester Aldridge who is building a client base in civil partnership work, says: “You couldn’t really have a network in this firm – it would probably be meeting two or three other people! But it’s important to feel you can go to social events with your partner. I’ve always talked about my partner very openly and never had anyone bat an eyelid. When we went through a civil partnership last year the firm sent me a bottle of champagne.”

Normalising the issues
Another key Stonewall recommendation is that firms should monitor the sexual orientation of its staff in the same way that they currently compile statistics on gender and ethnicity.

However, there is resistance among some firms to this because of the privacy issue. Clifford Chance’s policy on this is not to monitor because of the fear of being intrusive, says a spokesperson.

However, Pinsents’ Isaac argues that it can be a positive step. “Monitoring is relevant because, if you have the data, you have an understanding of what you’re dealing with and you can put support systems in place,” he says. “But you can’t compel people to complete the form or to complete it honestly.”

In this context the very act of monitoring can help to normalise the issues around sexual orientation. Frost cites the example of Staffordshire Police. In its first year of monitoring the force had 3 per cent of respondents identifying themselves as gay. “In the fifth year of monitoring it was 9 per cent,” he says.

This is borne out by Simmons’ experience. Tovell says: “When we decided that we should start gathering data on sexual orientation everyone was a bit horrified. Around 65 per cent of people declined to answer. The second time round there was no answer from 50 per cent.” Simmons’ statistics – publicly available on its website – shows that 1.45 per cent of the firm identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual; 50.87 per cent did not answer the question; 4.98 per cent declined to answer.

Route to equality
Gamble at Lester Aldridge speaks for many gay and lesbian solicitors when she says: “From my own perspective, the ideal is for it not to be an issue. Filling in statistics and having networking events are a path on the route to getting it to be open.”

Pinsents’ Barlow agrees. “The more you raise awareness, the more people feel comfortable,” he stresses. “And if you feel comfortable, you don’t have to bang on.”

Rainbow Flag
Public sector bodies now regularly ask for diversity information from law firms. Earlier this year Barclays general counsel Mark Harding made waves by stating that diversity would be a major factor in the choice of external advisers. Tim Hailes has given the strongest hints yet that its examination of law firms’ diversity will extend to the UK and that sexual orientation will be part of the assessment.

Hailes says: “JPMorgan in the United States has undertaken a law firm supplier diversity exercise as part of its counsel selection process. Colleagues can assess a firm’s progress around diversity issues along with the other factors in the decision to select outside counsel. Transposing those approaches ‘wholesale’ to this side of the Atlantic might not be appropriate, but we’re thinking about how best to factor diversity issues into our ongoing dialogue with our law firms. It’s important to us – which should make it important to them.”