My Pride Story: “I kept quiet until I became my set’s senior clerk”

3 Hare Court senior clerk James Donovan is the latest interview in our series of profiles to mark London Pride week.

What is your family background?

I grew up in South East London, raised a Roman Catholic and was taught by Christian brothers. I left school at 16 and started in chambers as the junior clerk, or ‘lad’ as I was called back then in 1985. I am happy to say that I am still in the same chambers – 31 years later.

Have you always been out in the workplace – did you have any anxieties about being LGBT?

No. For the first 10 years as the junior clerk I kept quiet. Back then (between 1985-95) I was anxious about it and was careful not to give anything away as I thought it would affect my progression as a clerk. In 1996 I was appointed the senior clerk and within a day I told my then head of chambers, who congratulated me and then said “Can I tell my wife?” After that I told everyone in chambers but didn’t feel the need to tell clients necessarily.

If you came out as LGBT later in your career, how did you do this a) with colleagues b) with clients?

Since then I haven’t exactly shouted it from the rooftops nor have I hidden it. I have just gone about my working life but I appreciate now that you do need to stand up and be counted to encourage others that it is okay.

James Donovan 3 Hare Court

What specific difficulties have you had to overcome?

I think all LGBT+ will say that a lot of people assume too much. I don’t have a problem with that as it is part of our human make up.

What can workplaces can do to help LGBT people?

That depends on the size of your workplace but I would say be visible and be accepting (and that could mean simple things like the language you use). Some firms like Mishcon de Reya have in place Mishcon Pride and actively promote LGBT+ – I very much enjoyed their party a short while ago.

As for the bar, I think more can be done with promoting best practice within the profession. Perhaps something more for the Bar Council to do but I hope with FreeBar that we can start to address that.

Do you think the law is LGBT-friendly?

In 2016 I think so. The solicitors’ side of the profession have embraced it many years ago and the bar is trying to catch up with them.

Is having strong role-models important when it comes to being out at work?

Very much so. It is only because others being out that people start to feel comfortable and consider doing the same.

What advice would you give to junior LGBT lawyers, clerks or other business services staff?

You have to be comfortable in what you do. If you have any concerns reach out to a colleague or a role model in your side of the profession. Every LGBT+ will have their own ‘coming out’ story and I tend to think we would all give time to anyone who is considering to or about to come out. It is a big thing still.

Tell us more about FreeBar?

I have been actively involved with FreeBar which is a forum focused on LGBT+ people working at and for the bar supported by Stonewall. The aim to provide a forum of mutual support for all gender and sexuality minority barristers and people who work alongside them, together with their straight allies. Through this we hope to share best practice on workplace inclusion whilst promoting and celebrating LGBT+ role models and allies.

Our launch event kindly hosted by Travers Smith in February was oversubscribed. That evening someone asked if we needed such an organisation: the simple answer is yes!