LGBT representation in the legal profession: What has changed and what needs to change?

Daniel Matchett
Daniel MatchettIrwin Mitchell Manchester

It’s the 13th LGBT History Month 2018, the celebration of the LGBT community in the UK. What progress has been made and what challenges do we still face?

LGBT flag and Law Society sign

Law firms have performed well in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers 2018 Workplace Equality Index – three in the Top 10 and 16 in the Top 100.

The positive business case

The obvious point of principle necessitates true inclusion and diversity in all walks of life, and there’s the positive business case.  Our profession is increasingly diverse and so are our clients.  According to the Law Society’s 2015 Practising Certificate Holder Survey (pdf), 2.6% of PC holders were estimated to be either gay, lesbians, bisexual or other, 94.6% were heterosexual/ straight (2.8% preferred not to reveal this information). This compares to 2% in the over 16 yr wider UK population (Office for National Statistics Sexual identity, UK: 2016).

Any firm which fails to take the steps necessary to promote an inclusive and diverse environment will find itself recruiting from a reduced talent pool, failing to maximise productivity and profit, and reducing its appeal to an increasingly diverse client market.  Contented colleagues are productive colleagues. 

LGBT now in the legal profession

A number of laws were passed early in the millennium marking significant progress for gay equality. In 2000 gay and bisexual people could be in the armed forces, in 2002 gay people (and unmarried couples) could adopt children. In 2004 civil partnerships extended relationship rights, before finally gay marriage became legal in 2013.

I entered the profession as a post-graduate student in 2010 and in practice in 2012. I am fortunate to have only known the legal profession in more enlightened and welcoming times. 

I joined a large firm where I was able to see a significant number of LGBT role models at all seniority levels and where the support and representation of LGBT staff is made a priority alongside the interests of colleagues from a variety of backgrounds.  Most firms now have measures in place to ensure that such issues are addressed appropriately, whether that is on a formal or more informal basis. I am well aware that it has not always been so.

LGBT then in the legal profession

We will all be aware of the male, pale and stale stereotype that the law is traditionally populated by middle-aged, middle class, heterosexual white men.  The profession has not always been as diverse as now.

The history of LGBT representation within the legal profession to a large extent mirrors that within wider society.  Homosexuality may have been decriminalised in 1967, but other laws such as the ban on 'promoting' homosexuality in schools (Section 28), introduced in 1988 were not overturned until 2003.

Consider how difficult it might have been for an LGBT colleague in the late 1980s to be open about their sexuality within the workplace and wider life, when official government policy was that homosexuality was a ‘pretended family relationship’. 

Fight for your rights

Over the years, LGBT people have fought for acceptance and inclusivity in society.  Happily, we have reached a point today where efforts to promote inclusivity no longer feel like a fight against society, clients, colleagues and employers, but a unified effort of the LGBT community and its allies. 

But we cannot allow complacency to set in. In 2008 it became illegal to encourage homophobic hatred, but 2016 figures show that more than 9,100+ hate crimes (11% of the total) were reported against gay men and women in the UK. While it is illegal to discriminate against LGBT people, many still face discrimination in their daily lives.

Anecdotally, it seems that a majority of gay people are open about their sexuality in their personal lives but only a minority are ‘widely out’ in the workplace. We must continue with our efforts.

In 2018 what should we be doing?

This will depend on the organisation in which we each work.  Whilst larger firms will have formal staff diversity networks and other strategies in place, many smaller firms will not have the resources or scale to justify such measures. If you are in a small firm without resources then you can look outside the workplace for regional networks/ support groups.  

  • we must promote a unified approach as a profession.  Firms, chambers and individuals must work together to ensure a consistent approach and a unified front 
  • every firm and every individual does what is possible and appropriate to ensure that their workplace is an inclusive environment and seen to be so
  • our clients are increasingly diverse, our profession must reflect this

I am excited by the work being done within our profession such as the recently established LawLink, Manchester's first legal diversity network, to ensure that diversity and inclusion is placed at the forefront of the legal community. Innovative groups such as these, run by the profession to promote the interests of the profession, are ultimately our best tools.

LGBT History Month is a time of celebration.  Let’s reflect on our profession and our own individual and collective efforts to continue the progress towards a profession which embraces the contributions of every community. 

Let us hope that for LGTB History Month 2019, we will be able to say that we have taken more steps forward.

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.