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  • 28 January 2013

    Sexuality in law: Great strides made, but still work to be done

    As recently as 2007, not a single law firm made the top 100 employer rankings compiled annually by gay rights charity Stonewall. Happily, there has been steady improvement since then, with this year seeing eight law firms featured in the list – the highest number to date.

    The turn-around is indicative of the great strides made by the legal profession in recent years in how it treats its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) members. Daniel Winterfeldt, the founder of legal LGBT network Interlaw and a partner at CMS Cameron McKenna, attributes the shift to a new bolder mindset among the younger generation of LGBT lawyers.

    He explains: ‘A new generation of junior lawyers who are out and open about their sexuality, and expect it not to be an issue, have fundamentally changed attitudes, and will keep changing them as they rise through the profession.’

    But change has also been driven by other factors, including the expectation of large law firms' clients. One event that is seen as particularly significant is the call made in 2007 by JP Morgan for law firms to bring their diversity policies in line with the more progressive investment banks. The decision of industry magazine The Lawyer to lead with that story on its front page is viewed by many as the moment when the wider legal profession woke up to the need to change its stance on sexuality.

    Since then, a host of legal LGBT groups have been formed – some, like the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association (LAGLA) and the aforementioned Interlaw span the profession, while others are specific to practice areas or firms. What they have in common, their members agree, is the support they offer to a minority who can still face marginalisation in the workplace.

    At the more progressive end of the profession, such groups are now being supplemented by employee networks supportive of LGBT issues, which are populated by non-LGBT lawyers. Baker & McKenzie, for example, which is the second-highest ranked law firm in this year's Stonewall rankings at 19th place, has recently launched 'BakerAllies' to help straight employees become involved in promoting LGBT diversity.

    However, in spite of the progress made, there remains much work to be done, with perceptions of homophobia still lingering. At the acute end of the spectrum, these manifest themselves in an undercurrent of privately-expressed anti-LGBT attitudes. The closest they get to being aired publicly is through comments on legal news websites in response to LGBT stories. One notorious comment made in response to a 2010 article about the etiquette of coming out at work caused outrage when it bizarrely sought to associate gay men with ‘addiction problems’. However, the outrage at the comment – which inspired a host of highly critical responses and even column inches in City AM – underlined how far mainstream views have shifted against the homophobes in the last few years.

    Less shocking, but equally serious, is the continuing feeling that the judiciary has been rather slower than law firms to alter its attitude towards LGBT lawyers. According to Interlaw research, 70% of LGBT lawyers believe there is prejudice within the selection process for judicial office. Many trace this back to the fact that until 1991 unmarried men and women – including gay and lesbian lawyers – were excluded from becoming judges.

    The Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC) is keenly aware of the problem, and has taken a number of steps to remedy it. Last year it added sexuality to its list of diversity monitoring criteria, which also include gender, ethnicity, age, professional background and disability. It also enlisted three prominent openly gay judges – Court of Appeal judge Sir Terence Etherton, High Court judge Sir Adrian Fulford and Circuit Court judge Jeremy Richardson – to speak at the growing number of events it is holding among the gay legal community.

    The next challenge on the horizon is what LAGLA chief Andrea Woelke refers to as the ‘“What happens in Dubai?” question’. In other words, how do international law firms apply their enlightened LGBT policies in countries where gay people may be legally discriminated against? A flurry of office openings by large law firms in Saudi Arabia has recently seen this tricky question raise its head again – not just in respect of the LGBT community, but for women lawyers too.

    Expect plenty more bumps in the road like these as the legal profession wrestles with diversity issues. But be glad too of how far it has come – and that by far the majority of the signs suggest that it is moving in the right direction.

    BOX: Stonewall's latest top 100 gay-friendly employers ranking – how the law firms did

    9. Simmons & Simmons
    19. Baker & McKenzie
    22. Pinsent Masons
    30. Herbert Smith Freehills
    40. Hogan Lovells
    52. Eversheds
    62. CMS Cameron McKenna
    72. Irwin Mitchell

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