Happy people, happy firms

Tim Barnden, partner at Bates Wells, takes us on a journey of his life and career. From the discos of the 80s to leadership in a City firm, he describes his perception of how the legal sector has changed during his time in it and how it has changed him.

It’s a commonly stated key objective of inclusivity that law firms should enable their people to feel comfortable to bring their “whole self” to work. That will likely have particular resonance if you’re someone who identifies as LGBT+.

It's Pride Month and my workplace is bedecked with inclusive LGBT+ flags: pink, blue, black and brown now part of the familiar rainbow.

Our intranet is buzzing with queer content – key dates, resources, events, brain food and YouTube clips of our LGBT+ network’s favourite tunes.

All this gets me thinking not just about our histories, a richly textured quilt of diverse lives, struggle and pain, defiance and joy, subversion and freedom, but more prosaically of my personal path. Much of it spent working in law firms and frequently enjoying the benefits of employers getting it right.

Coming out – then being co-opted

When I was at university, it took me less than a year to come out as gay.

The early to mid-80s were of course a ferment: sexually ambiguous pop stars, the miners’ strike, AIDS, Thatcher’s section 28, and the coalescing of coalitions that within two decades would see the UK moving to something like full equality.

I was active in NUS (National Union of Students), I dyed my hair, I wore a pink triangle badge declaring “Gay Anger is Gay Power”.

We danced in a lot of discos, and we marched in a lot of marches.

My path to working in the law was an unexpected diversion. It turned out that campaigning wasn’t a career for me but that criminal law, and then later immigration, was something I could turn my hand to.

I worked first for a sole practitioner. The clients were mainly fine, although I do recall that working on the defence of a man accused of ‘queer bashing’ patrons of Hoxton’s former gay institution, the London Apprentice, didn’t make me feel so great.

I stopped dyeing my hair, bought a suit, and took off the badges. I didn’t tell my boss I was gay, and I wasn’t asked.

As hard as I reflect, I can’t remember what persuaded me to ‘liberate’ myself of these parts of my identity.

I had walked into a closet with the clothes of my former self hanging sheepishly beside me.

It got worse before it got better. I moved to a high street practice where casual homophobia was assumed.

To my amazement, I was thought to be on team ‘straight’, and I found myself not only in the closet, but being co-opted.

I thank the heavens that I got out as quickly as I could. I vowed that the days of the closet were over. A ‘whole self’ again?

Finding an inclusive home

I went on to train at a progressive legal aid firm and one of my supervisors was himself out and gay, as was one of my fellow trainees.

The benefits of being able to train in an environment where you had no anxiety as to acceptance by colleagues can’t be underestimated.

On qualification, I cut my teeth in high street legal aid firms where the culture was inclusive.

I then spent more than a decade in a niche immigration firm with a particular base acting for LGBT+ couples, and closely involved with the development of support for LGBT+ refugees.

I had many gay colleagues and felt very much at home. Lucky, even.

And finally, a big leap to my current firm – a City firm – with some trepidation as to what kind of culture awaited me.

It was a huge relief then that before I started, I was invited by my new team to attend a Pride launch of the firm’s LGBT-focused stream within its diversity and inclusivity forum.

And seven years later here I am, partner, LGBT+ ambassador and immersed in the firm’s inclusivity work, alongside leading the immigration team.

I am powerfully aware that many others have not been as lucky as me.

I can look back and say that the sectors I chose to work in, the pain of that early and mercifully very brief retreat into the closet, and my own determination to do things on my terms, combined to mean I have rarely felt that my sexuality is a barrier to success.

It could have been so very different.

I had big advantages – White, male and an Oxbridge graduate, an unorthodox career path, accessing work experience in a less competitive and regulated era.

The importance of authenticity

Things have come a long way since the late 80s, and legal equality demands non-discrimination.

It’s a challenging but necessary step from there to do the hard work to foster inclusivity – establishing networks, intersectional and cross firm education, recruitment and retention, client involvement, and examining supply chains.

Most of all: never taking anyone’s identity for granted, and ultimately letting us all choose which bits of the whole self we want to bring to work, without the fear of barriers descending.

There is, I think, a risk that the corporatisation of LGBT+ inclusion – ‘pinkwashing’ if you like – strips away authenticity.

An inauthentic whole self is no self at all.

If we get to be our authentic selves, then we find happiness, and happy people make for happy and productive firms.

Pride in the Law

Discover how LGBT+ people in the profession feel about the sector, and their workplaces, in our Pride in the Law report.

Over 600 responses from LGBT+ legal professionals, and their allies, responded to our survey and documented their experiences.

Discover the full report

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