Gay and free?

During the downturn associates have some tough choices to make. To sit tight or move to an office in a busier jurisdiction? Which is an even tougher choice to make when you’re gay.

Gay and free?During the downturn associates have some tough choices to make. Whether to invest in retraining or focus on core specialisms? How to get noticed when the work’s just not coming in? To sit tight or move to an office in a busier jurisdiction?

Its well documented in this magazine that foreign secondments are increasingly seen as some kind of panacea for law firm managers and staff alike to the problems of the domestic slowdown.

Perhaps because of the string of superlatives associated with it, Dubai figures high on most people’s lists of choice destinations. More money, more sun, more client contact and a fast-track to partnership, as one blogger argues here.

But what about if you are gay or lesbian? Having a sexuality which is at odds with local law can present the employee with a whole host of additional choices to make about how to unite career progression with personal well-being. And some have decried the lack of support offered to LGBT staff abroad by firms inexperienced in dealing with the issue.

So an event that I went along to this week organised by LGBT alliance the InterLaw Diversity Forum for LGBT Networks on just this topic was an important step forward.

It brought together representatives from LGBT groups at BT Global Services, IBM UK and the Royal Navy, as well as from Stonewall, to discuss best practice in the field with colleagues in the legal sector.

Like many of the firms in the UK 100, these organisations are global in their reach and are as intent as the legal profession in upholding local law and respecting local customs. But these organisations have longer histories of being involved abroad. And, with the exception of the Navy – which has made efforts to catch up in the last decade – they have been much quicker to take-up the diversity batton than law firms because of their organisational structure and greater commercial awareness.

An article in Monday’s edition of The Lawyer will mention some of the initiatives taken by these employers to support their LGBT staff once they actually get abroad.

But just as important is making sure that LGBT staff have as much access as possible to accurate, unbiased information about the reality facing them abroad before making the move. Perhaps through talking with LGBT colleagues on the ground – who are more likely to understand what it means to be a gay ex-pat in Moscow or Muscat than a heterosexual, if well-meaning, head of department based in London.

That, of course, requires sufficient openness from the individuals concerned.

And it can only help if firms are upfront about the issues from the beginning, through diversity monitoring that includes sexual orientation and promotion of LGBT networks in countries where doing so is not against the law.

For those LGBT staff that decide on balance they would be either unhappy or unsafe moving to certain overseas offices, the panel offered alternative options for career progression at home.

One requires management input. IBM has developed leadership courses for mid-management that specifically target underrepresented groups including gays and lesbians, giving them the tools to reach their potential. Law firms could develop something similar.

Another starts with each and every LGBT member of staff. LGBT groups themselves offer a way of increasing contact with senior management, expanding networking opportunities and the chance to sharpen skills that come in useful in client work.

Truly an opportunity to shine and boost personal morale during a downturn. And evidence that there are many paths to partnership.