In June, London will host its annual Pride festival, celebrating the capital’s LGBT community and campaigning for equal rights for all. Among the participants will be a large contingent from the legal sector with representatives from the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives.
Not only will they champion the lawyers who fight for LGBT justice but also diversity within the profession itself. It seems a far cry from the oft-cited stereotype of a rather conservative industry. But is this very public celebration truly representative?
A long way in a short time
There has been much progress on LGBT diversity in recent years. In 2007 there was not one law firm in Stonewall’s Work Equality Index of the Top 100 Employers for LGB Employees. In 2008, Pinsent Masons became the first law firm to make the list; a year later it was joined by three more. This year’s list recognised 12 law firms in the top 100.
Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality charity, gives much credit to the InterLaw Diversity Forum for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Networks. This inter-organisation forum for lawyers and non-lawyers in the legal sector, founded in 2008, now has over 1,000 members and supporters from more than 70 law firms and 40 corporates and financial institutions.
Within law firms themselves, networks have been set up to support LGBT staff, and ally schemes created where heterosexual employees can show support for gay colleagues. The Law Society also founded the LGBT Lawyers Division last year.
Efforts have clearly been made. However, have they made a difference on the ground? Figures from the Law Society in its Diversity Profile 2014 found that 2.2% of practicing certificate holders identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual; 5.9% preferred not to answer. The government estimates that 6% of the UK population is gay, lesbian or bisexual; Stonewall agrees that it is in the region of 5 to 7%.
In February, Chambers Student attended the Law Society's annual celebration of LGBT history month to look at the actual experience for LGBT individuals today in the legal industry. A panel discussion among industry representatives noted a number of actions that still need to be addressed – namely a need for more openly gay senior role models. However, such leaders are perhaps shaped by their own experiences as they rose through the ranks at a time when it was less acceptable to be ‘out’. But the panelists stressed it would be for the benefit of all for more to come forward. Heterosexual bosses should also reinforce the diversity message – but it has to be sincere, panelists warned.
A law society spokesperson told us: “Significant steps have been taken already and the progress is very encouraging, but there is still a long way to go. We want all solicitors to be confident that the law is a profession where talent, ability and application are rewarded irrespective of sexual orientation, gender or background. We hope that more and more firms recognise that diversity brings with it competitive advantage.”
Opportunity in diversity
The latter is key – LGBT diversity is essential not only from a moral point of view but also for business. Research from Stonewall claims that those who feel that they can’t disclose their sexual orientation at work are 30% less productive. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation also found that closeted LGBT employees are 73% more likely than their out peers to say they will leave their workplace within three years. Clients also demand that their law firms are truly diverse.
A recent conference held by The Economist looked at why LGBT diversity is important for business and the economy, and what some of the barriers are. One issue is in measuring LGBT inclusiveness as it relies on people to self-identify – and they won’t do that until they feel secure about revealing their orientation.
But crucially it was stressed that authenticity is essential in creating a work environment built on trust. People need to feel that they can be themselves and not have to spend so much energy on being guarded about their personal circumstances. Given that the legal industry is heavily based on building relationships, whether with clients or with teams, trust is vital.
The legal profession has made significant strides to defend and promote LGBT rights both externally and internally. While there may always be more that can be done, many will join the Pride celebrations feeling justifiably proud of the efforts the legal industry has made so far.