Luke WilliamsWhat is your background?

I grew up in a small, conservative town in Yorkshire where diversity was limited. After reading law at university, I moved to London to train as a solicitor with a medium-sized property and private client firm. I qualified in 2016 and am now non-practising, working in academia. I’ve been transitioning for almost five years.

Have you always been out at work? What specific difficulties have you had to overcome?

I came out as trans in 2013 after I’d received a training contract offer, so transitioning at work was inevitable. I was fortunate to have a supportive personal tutor during my LPC studies, so I started my “social transition” (changing my name and pronouns) at law school, coming out to my firm in the summer before I joined in September.

The public understanding of trans people isn’t as developed as that of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but even today it’s moved on from where it was in 2014 when I started work. Unfortunately my firm, whilst generally supportive, didn’t handle the news of my transition as well as I’d hoped. I wasn’t really given a proper opportunity to discuss how I wanted the news to be communicated to my colleagues, and they were resistant to some of my suggestions. The lawyers I worked with day to day were great, but there was a definite need for improved HR training – something which I hope they’re working to address.

The thing I found most difficult during my training contract was managing the demands of a stressful job in law alongside the bureaucracy associated with transitioning. Transition is pervasive and affects almost every aspect of your life, and the toll it can take is exacerbated by the NHS waiting times (two to four years for a first “diagnostic” appointment following GP referral!).

My firm did give me time off for medical appointments, but the pastoral support and mentoring from which I would have benefited was lacking. There was limited overt support for LGBT employees, and too few of us to form our own informal network.

Do you think the law is LGBT friendly?

We’re moving in the right direction, but I think the attitude is heavily dependent on organisations’ willingness to learn and embrace change. There are some firms whose HR teams are fantastic, and the partnership is setting an example in hosting and attending LGBT events for their members. By contrast, others seem to pay lip service because diversity is still an issue allowed to drift down the priority list. Stonewall has an excellent scheme called “Diversity Champions” through which they provide advice and guidance to firms seeking to become more inclusive, and it’s a shame that some firms won’t engage and embrace cultural change.

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

Absolutely. While I was out at work through necessity, there was almost a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture where few people were openly acknowledged to be LGBT. I found transitioning in my workplace very lonely due in consequence of lack of role models at the firm, and the wider lack of trans representation in the legal profession.

I’m now at a stage in my transition where few people perceive that I’m trans from my appearance, so on the surface I look like a white, middle class, Oxbridge educated man (a group with significant amounts of privilege). I make a point of coming out to colleagues and tutees – all of whom have been completely supportive – so that they know I’m approachable and to show that trans lawyers do exist. I’ve received a great deal of and wisdom from some incredible people over the course of my transition, and the least I can do is pay it forward to those lawyers coming after me.

What advice would you give to junior LGBT lawyers?

Always strive to be your authentic self, and don’t let the fear of what might (or might not!) happen discourage you. Coming out can be daunting, particularly for trans people who are also embarking on a long and often arduous process, but people will respect you for your integrity and your self-awareness. As far as your career is concerned, if something is meant to be it’ll happen. 

How can lawyers support LGBT people as allies?

There’s a wealth of information available for HR teams looking to make their organisations more trans inclusive, but we as lawyers have an individual role to play too.

The current “debate” around reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has absolutely nothing to do with trans people’s access to gendered spaces, which is governed by the Equality Act 2010 (with very narrow exceptions for single-sex spaces). There’s a lot of misinformation being spread by members of the public, and as legal experts we’re uniquely placed to illuminate the issues.

I’m happy to be contacted if you’d like to learn more, so please do ask The Lawyer to put you in touch.

Luke Williams is a lecturer at a major law school.