But at the same time it underscores the slow pace of change among the profession as a whole.
Just four firms - Eversheds, Herbert Smith, Pinsent Masons and Simmons & Simmons – made it into the top 100, which ranks employers on the basis of their performances across nine areas of policy and practice. The common thread among this group is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)-specific strands to diversity training and equal opportunities monitoring, although many implement other programmes such as supplier diversity and LGBT internal support networks.
Every one of these firms improved their ranking on the previous year, which was no mean feat given that increased competition raised the bar for entry. And the advancement was particularly impressive given that initiatives such as training and monitoring require resources, which may be few and far between during a recession.
“We’ve all had a tough time and budgets have been trimmed,” admits Caroline Wilson, head of diversity and corporate responsibility at Eversheds. “These things do take money and creativity, but as with the whole corporate responsibility umbrella, people are really pleased that it’s been given such prominence.”
Investing in workplace equality may help create cohesion when morale is otherwise low, but there is also a compelling argument that it helps create more successful businesses. Stonewall claims that some 74 per cent of gay and 42 per cent of straight consumers “are less likely to be associated with organisations that hold negative views of LGB people”, while “concealing sexual orientation at work reduces productivity by up to 30 per cent”. It claims that creating a gay-friendly workplace also improves recruitment and retention.
But outside the best practice exemplified by this group, the legal sector overwhelmingly falls behind areas such as professional services and central government, which only serves to confirm stereotypes about the profession. The Law Society, which recently launched a separate survey on LGBT career advancement together with Stonewall and LGBT network InterLaw (The Lawyer, 20 April 2009), says that the index shows that “there is still a lot to do”.
The Law Society is developing a protocol for its Diversity and Inclusion Charter that will include reporting on sexual orientation. There has historically been quite a lot of resistance to this.
Until this year Herbert Smith did not ask employees about their sexuality. “We didn’t do it because we didn’t want people to think we’d discriminate on this basis,” says employment partner and member of the firm’s inclusivity group Andrew Taggart. “But we think that, by recording it, it helps us to be more inclusive.”
The firm has not yet published the responses. However, Eversheds and Simmons have, with the results available on their respective websites (see diversity box).
In a recession diversity monitoring provides a snapshot of whether sexual minorities are being discriminated against during redundancy programmes. Eversheds has lost 735 people since 2007 as a result of redundancies, retirement and other departures – the bulk of them during 2008. But as Wilson points out, there has not been any change between 2008 and 2009 in terms of the proportion of employees declaring themselves to be gay or lesbian, which stands at around 3 per cent.
“If gay people don’t feel [comfortable with] themselves that affects their performance and arguably their ability to hold on to their jobs during the downturn. If more gay people had been made redundant I would have been able to see that in those figures, but happily that wasn’t the case,” she confirms.
Monitoring also helps firms at the other end of the HR spectrum to establish which sectors of the population could be better targeted during the recruitment process.
Both Herbert Smith and Simmons have undertaken outreach work with LGBT communities, with the former mentoring LGBT students at Manchester University.
“Obviously it’s an advertisement for the firm, as well a way of breaking down perceptions that exist about lawyers being inflexible,” says Taggart. “It’s potentially intimidating if you don’t feel you fit into a certain type of mould.”
Simmons, meanwhile, sponsored an LGBT ball for students at Durham and Newcastle universities.
“It’s about recruiting the best talent possible by casting the net widely,” says Daniel Winterfeldt, a corporate partner at Simmons and the founder of LGBT network InterLaw. “Law firms need to think outside the box.”
There is some suggestion that it is not only the recruiters who need to think outside the box. Among those firms that monitor sexual orientation, no respondents claim to be bisexual – or transgender for that matter. Stonewall does not advocate on behalf of the transgender community, but finds that “bisexual people are eight times more likely than lesbian and gay colleagues to disguise their sexual orientation in the workplace”.
Winterfeldt thinks this is partly because “confusion about what bisexuality is” makes this orientation “hard to handle for both gay and straight people”. Well-structured diversity training, together with clear policies on discrimination, can help to address some of this confusion, helping avoid feelings of exclusion and, potentially, costly tribunal claims.
Just as importantly, if employees feel more themselves their contribution will be greater, giving their firms an added advantage in a tough market.