I feel very privileged to write this article having just been elected by my peers as vice president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association (LSLA). That said, it is difficult not to suffer from imposter syndrome.  As wonderful as this profession is, and as motivated and enthused as I am in my role as a partner in an international law firm and as vice president of the LSLA, I constantly wonder how I got here. I still do not feel like I have a right to be here – after all, I am a gay Irish man, non-privately educated and the first in my family to go to university.

But I am here. Now that I have been given this opportunity of working with Nikki Edwards, the new president of the LSLA and one of very few female presidents in its history, I want to inspire others – from all minorities and backgrounds – to know that if I can do it, then anyone can.

Although I may not have had many gay role models to look up to as a junior solicitor, I was blessed with having a hugely supportive family, friends and colleagues, as well as having many impressive and inspiring senior lawyers, who ensured that I did not feel the glass ceiling, which I often felt was there, would prevent me from achieving.

This was notwithstanding that during my whole education and early career, I experienced prejudice first hand because of my sexuality and, at times, my nationality.   In more recent years, however, I discovered that when I competed for promotion or went after opportunities, the fact that I was confident in my identity and proud to be LGBTQ+, could actually present a big advantage.  As so many of us who have encountered such experiences know, adversity can make us stronger and makes us rise to the challenge.

What does it feel like to be part of a minority? Huge challenge remains in educating all our colleagues about that. Not all minorities have the same experience, but there is often a common theme of confusion and a lack of understanding.  Although society and the legal profession has come a long way to allow me to be outspoken about my experiences and to take leadership positions, there is still a long way to go.

Being gay, like all members of the LGBTQ+ community, to be our authentic selves we have to ‘come out’ all the time. Over and over again. This can be taxing and tiring, and whereas it may not be the same intense experience like it was when coming out to friends, family or work colleagues for the very first time, it still needs to happen basically every day in some way or another. It is difficult for heterosexuals, for example, who not have to make the point that they are heterosexual all the time, to understand what impact this may have on one’s psyche.   Some things as simple as a chat in the office kitchen or a team meeting about weekend activities or family can put pressure on LGBTQ+ individuals to reveal their sexuality or gender identity when they may not know how everyone in that conversation will react – that is not a feeling which many heterosexual people ever encounter.

It remains a very personal choice to do so but for those of us who do come out, we need to advocate for the benefits of doing so  thereby enabling us to be our true authentic selves. As a result, we can lay the groundwork so that others can feel comfortable in coming out after us. To do that, we need real support from our workplaces and we need to know that they have our backs given the experiences we face on a daily basis.  We need our colleagues and the leadership of our businesses to understand that this can be a continuous struggle. Even after many years, the fear of an adverse reaction which may impact on whether we win the work or whether we get the opportunity to work on the case, remains a reality.

In a 2021 survey of LGBTQ+ legal professionals, the lack of role models and the challenge in coming out to clients were among the most pressing issues for the group. Quite strikingly, 82 per cent of the respondents were out to colleagues but only 38 per cent were out to clients.  This demonstrates really clearly why we need to see members of minority groups, whether LGBTQ+ or otherwise, to be in positions of leadership. If we can be open with our clients, then that inevitably provides confidence to others to do the same.  But the support must be real, and it cannot simply be a tick box exercise.

This can be done by being active in the internal alliance networks. Our leadership needs to be seen, to be present and to be vocal. Small physical symbols can really go a long way – having a rainbow lanyard or a small Pride flag on a desk or at reception, participating in alliance network meetings, asking questions and listening to the views of LGBTQ+ staff on what they would like the leaders to do to help them.  I would recommend sharing the responsibility for ensuring that alliances are successful and not always leaving the burden on LGBTQ+ individuals to lead on these initiatives – that way a combined effort might generate the support required across the board. Further, as confirmed in the same survey undertaken by the Law Society, the most important thing that LGBTQ+ allies can do in the workplace is to challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour.

And finally, my advice to those lawyers who are not out – don’t find yourself in the position I was in without any LGBTQ+ senior lawyer to talk to. Instead, use the networks that exist internally and externally; come and find us and talk to us and talk as I can guarantee that you will get the support you need as those of us who are now in leadership positions all remember those days all too well.  And to our leaders who are also our allies, make yourself known as LGBTQ+ allies and advocate on behalf of those who need you from all minorities – you will benefit too through more diverse, cohesive, and stronger teams.

John McElroy is vice president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association.