At 50 plus, while not quite an elder statesman, I am certainly at the “experienced” end of the scale. So what have the experiences of nearly 30 years as a Scottish lawyer been?
Going back even further than that, university in Glasgow in the late 1980s was undoubtedly fun and pretty liberated. New Romantic fashion certainly meant there was an element of fusion and blurred lines everywhere. Even as the AIDS era developed and Section 28 hit the headlines, it felt relaxed and modern. Still, entering “the profession” in the early 90s, conformity seemed to be key. Ties had to be worn at all times and jackets donned when you left your desk. There was a small handful of solicitors and advocates who were well known for being out and equally well known for their flamboyance.
While they were respected lawyers, it didn’t feel mainstream. It would not have crossed my mind to refer to my sexuality to the senior partner and definitely not to a client. I can’t say I felt any sense of discrimination and those I worked with certainly “knew” but it just wasn’t talked about in the workplace, almost in a conscious way.
Thinking back, that carried on for a long time. Was that peculiarly Scottish? I suspect not, but I also suspect that these traits might have been a little bit more ingrained that in London. Questions and, I admit, answers about weekends and holidays were couched in gender neutral terms.
I remember department file closing dinners. Hard as it is to believe now, each matter existed as a paper file which lived in a filing cabinet and as transactions ended and the filing cabinet bulged, files had to be closed and the incentive for doing that was a planned late shift followed by dinner. Spouses were invited to that dinner and in those days that could only mean opposite-sex married partners.
Non-married opposite-sex partners didn’t feature, so forget even asking if my boyfriend could come along. Even then, the spouse rule struck me as out of the ark. I simply replied to the requests for attendees that “I do not have a spouse”.
Society around us was changing. Section 28 (strictly Section 2A in Scotland) was repealed 20 years ago in Scotland, three years ahead of elsewhere. Were things changing at work? There were still no problems in a concrete sense, but it still wasn’t on the agenda either in the office or client led. There was certainly an awareness of racial equality (question whether that awareness was leading anywhere) but still, no one in the office really talked about what would become known as LGBT+ issues. Mea culpa, I concede.
By the end of 2005, the Civil Partnership Act 2004 was in force across the UK and the pace of change out there was accelerating, but the office (by which I mean Scottish commercial law firms generally) remained the office. By then, if there ever had been a difference between Scotland and other parts of the UK (or London at least) in the wider community outside work, that did not apply in my admittedly fairly cosseted experience in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The years rolled on and I suppose things became a little bit more “relaxed” in the office and that in turn made me more relaxed. There was evolution, but at a Darwinian pace. However, the big change did not happen until 2017 when Maclay Murray & Spens, where I had worked for 20 years, became part of Dentons. Diversity & Inclusion was right up there, with the GLOW network representing LGBT+ issues and Allies – with a support system and openness we now see as the norm in workplaces like mine.
That really did change people’s perceptions that it was okay and perfectly normal to think and talk about proper LGBT+ inclusion and awareness and even ask questions. It was okay for me to be equally open because there was no need to care any longer about anyone being uncomfortable. I’ll admit to being a sceptic at first, but I happily concede that a bit of a sea change for the better happened.
Was it revolution or evolution? I’d say the latter, but it was long overdue. Being Yourself at Work is not just a slogan but a reality. We were probably on that journey, but the pace speeded up a lot and while we don’t have files anymore – never mind file closing dinners – there’s no question that Calum can come along to events as my partner. The reality was that Scotland was never (far) behind but we needed a real nudge forward.
Kenny McLaren is counsel in the real estate team at Dentons, based in Glasgow.