Things are improving for LGBT solicitors but the profession must do more.
As demographics change rapidly, client and talent profiles are becoming more diverse. The diversity of a law firm matters and can have a positive impact, not only in helping to avoid the risks of ‘group-think’, but also in improving bottom-line results.
Solicitors who adopt inclusive working policies and behaviours are better positioned to attract the best people, meet clients’ needs and sustain competitiveness and growth.
Purchasers of legal services are moving towards selection based on evidence of sustained diversity improvements and initiatives within law firms. Firms that have a reputation for equality and fairness are more likely to attract a wide range of clients and good calibre candidates from diverse backgrounds. A diverse workforce brings a range of talent – different approaches to problem-solving and varied viewpoints, skills and knowledge – to the business. This enhances the ability of a business to innovate. If employees feel valued and are able to progress regardless of background, they are more likely to stay.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) solicitors’ experiences of discrimination or inclusion in the workplace are widely divergent. Negative experiences are still not uncommon. Equality does not appear to be a consistent expectation across the profession, nor are the issues that may affect LGBT clients and staff universally understood or appreciated.
Overt discrimination can be easier to deal with than indirect discrimination and unconscious bias. We tend to be more comfortable with people who are similar to us and may feel uncomfortable with people we perceive as being different. It is often a natural tendency to recruit or collaborate in our own image, rather than looking more widely for talent. Unconscious bias significantly contributes to barriers to LGBT solicitors gaining entry or progressing their careers in the legal sector.
For heterosexual colleagues, a casual mention of a partner or family life, a photograph on the desk, requests for parental leave, inviting your partner to a work function may be of little consequence. But, for someone who is LGBT, such things may be tantamount to ‘coming out’. Wary of other people’s reactions and the impact this could have on their careers, some LGBT people will avoid talking about their home life and edit who they are.
This can lead to mistrust from colleagues who do not know why their co-worker is perhaps less open about their life outside work. The best firms understand that if their staff cannot be themselves at work, they will be unhappy and less productive.
If discrimination, unfair treatment and unconscious bias can be reduced, this can have a knock-on effect on grievances and relations within the firm. This in turn can reduce absenteeism and staff turnover by enhancing employee engagement and productivity.
Achieving change around inclusion and diversity is no different to implementing change in any other area of organisational life. It requires a rationale, clear objectives and strong leadership. Public statements of commitment to LGBT inclusion give a clear signal to employees and clients.
Things are improving for LGBT solicitors but organisations must do more to foster positive working environments where people can reach their full potential, and step up to the challenge of thinking realistically and creatively about how prejudice is manifested in their organisations, the damage it could do to their commercial success, and ways that it can be prevented.
The Law Society’s new LGBT Lawyers Division will help inform our diversity and inclusion strategy and address challenges facing LGBT lawyers and clients. It will also be representative of the full diversity of the profession, helping us represent and support those working in private practice, in-house, regionally or in small firms. We hope the division will build on the progress made and promote the legal sector as a diverse, exciting and inclusive place to work.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is chair of the Law Society’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee