It is time for the profession to rid itself of discrimination against LGBT lawyers.
Solicitors are seen by many as a funny bunch. Conservative, stuck in our ways, slightly detached from reality. But we tell ourselves that, for our line of work, detachment is good; it allows us to see the wood for the trees and assess a situation without undue bias. And sometimes we are kidding ourselves.
Being detached from changes in society does us harm – harm to our businesses. At a time when solicitors are under threat from outside competition like never before, to some the profession may still seem to be dominated by white, suited-and-booted middle-class men, something that might have worked 50 years ago, but alienates more people than it attracts today.
That stereotype does not actually reflect the reality, as the existence of the women lawyers and ethnic minority lawyers divisions of the Law Society demonstrates. Those divisions have been joined this year by the LGBT Lawyers Division, which I am proud to chair, and its growing numbers confirm still further the true diversity of this profession.
We need to defend and promote diversity by showing to ourselves and others the broad backgrounds from which the solicitors that serve society on a daily basis actually come; and, if you are LGBT, by publicly acknowledging this and letting other LGBT solicitors and clients know that you’re out and proud. This might seem daunting to many.
The conservatism I mentioned above seems to hang around our necks like anchors on our careers; holding us back, requiring us to keep a low profile and to conform to the stereotype as far as we can. But this does us no favours and hurts the profession too. The stereotype keeps at bay not only many clients but also talented entrants into the profession. That way we all lose.
Of course, all of this tree-hugging, sandal-wearing ‘looking after the minorities’ stuff is all very well for the larger firms that have the resources to monitor this sort of thing. Smaller operations have businesses to run and don’t have the spare resources to devote to it.
As someone who operates her own firm, I understand that. But attracting a broad range of clients with a broad range of talent is necessary for any business that wants to survive and thrive, so denying this area resource is, in the long term, like cutting your own throat.
Some in the profession prefer the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to dealing with LGBT issues. Someone’s sexuality and private life have no relevance in the workplace. Such an approach is, in reality, ill-disguised bigotry. A male staff member may come into work on a Monday and discuss the fact that he and his wife went to a farmer’s market over the weekend.
Does that bring his sexuality into the workplace? Under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, the answer is yes; if a man has a wife, this indicates he is heterosexual. If a woman were to tell the same story about her and her wife’s weekend shopping spree, suddenly the rules change. But they should not and steps need to be taken to ensure they do not.
Both the Law Society and Solicitors Regulation Authority have LGBT equality on their agendas, but it is now time to do more than monitoring and start actively encouraging, promoting and, if absolutely necessary, enforcing people’s right to openly be who they really are at work, free from the risk of hostility or career disadvantage. As a transgender woman, my recent dealings with both the Law Society and the SRA have been exemplary and fully accepting, but more needs to be done to rid the profession of any remaining homophobia or transphobia wherever it may lurk.
If you’re an LGBT solicitor, sign up to the new division’s newsletter and soon-to-be-launched social network via communities.lawsociety.org.uk/lgbt-lawyers. If you’re an ally of LGBT rights, do the same.
So, it turns out that solicitors are a funny bunch after all – and long may it continue.
Erin Smith is chair of the Law Society’s LGBT Division