Legitimacy, we have. Next stop: authenticity

It’s 20 years this September since I left Belfast to complete my LPC and training contract. With that milestone in mind and with the annual Pride festivities in full flow, it is a good moment to look back at my own evolution over those 20 years, both from a personal as well as a work perspective. Progress has been made but so much more needs to be done.

While I acknowledge the significant steps which have been made resulting in the number of openly out LGBTQ+ lawyers significantly increasing since the turn of the millennium, I still find myself questioning why so many of this community still feel uncomfortable in being their true selves in the legal workplace and remain unable to come out at work.

Being authentic is something that we all value: it is how and why we choose our friends and who we work with, and it is obvious that authenticity is, therefore, something which clients appreciate. I can confidently say that I am a better lawyer and a better colleague for bringing my whole self to work, which includes being open about my sexuality.

I, for one, enjoy the chats in the office when I can share what I did at the weekend with my husband and not be silent about who I live or socialise with. My life outside the office is rarely particularly exciting but being able to make small talk at the start of a meeting or in the office kitchen makes a huge difference.

It was very different 20 years ago. In the early years of my career, there were no openly gay role models to inspire me to come out. I would go as far as saying that for many in the LGBTQ+ community, there was actually a fear of one’s sexuality coming to light in the office, in case that would stymie career progression.

I like to think that this has now changed. Law firm culture – and business more generally – is all the better for having a diverse group of people, whichever community we stem from. We need and welcome diversity in terms of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, disability and socio-economic background.

Nevertheless, more positive changes need to be effected. According to the SRA’s most recent published data, 3.5 per cent of all lawyers identify as lesbian, bisexual and gay, which is more than one in every 30 lawyers. From my experience, that does not represent the number of lesbian, bisexual and gay lawyers who are out. Indeed, one of my ongoing struggles is building a network of LGBTQ+ contacts within the industry. This may be partly explained by the findings in the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s Career Progression in the Legal Sector Report 2021, which notes that almost 20 per cent of LGB people are not open with anyone at work about their sexual orientation, with that percentage increasing to over 25 per cent for trans people.

These figures need to improve. Having openly gay law firm partners and senior barristers really helps, as does the creation of LGBTQ+ alliance networks, as it demonstrates that there is support and encouragement to be yourself in the workplace. It also assists to have out LGBTQ+ people in leadership positions and this should continue to be a key focus for the legal sector in the same way as there has been a focus on other diversity groups in leadership roles. It is, in any event, essential that all leaders in the legal sector, whatever their sexuality, lead by example as allies, by attending internal ally events and similar events externally, such as InterLaw, for example. It will lead to a positive impact for LGBTQ+ employees but also can be impactful on the culture within the organisation.

To finish, I would simply offer this advice: dare to be yourself in the workplace because the clients and colleagues working with you respect you as an individual and will value your advice even more for knowing the real you. For us it is, in some ways, a process – we have to come out continually: to our family, to our friends and then to our colleagues and our clients.

You may be concerned about the reaction you might receive. But now in 2022 (certainly in this part of the world), I think you will be genuinely surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction. Being open about your sexuality in the workplace will not change how most people react to you; by contrast, you may well find, as I have done, that being yourself only enhances that bond and relationship, to enable you to work together more closely and more effectively.

We all have so much to gain from being authentic in our interactions. For a recent example, we need look no further than the positive response to Jake Daniels’ coming out as an openly gay professional footballer. The support has been fantastic and his courage is inspiring to us all.

The legal sector wants to change, but the impact of individual law firm LGBTQ+ networks is currently often limited by the relatively small population of LGBTQ+ individuals out in the workplace. As there is always safety in numbers, I see good reasons why law firms and chambers should work together across their LGBTQ+ networks to meet and provide informal mentoring.

Hopefully, if we can reach out beyond our own internal networks and organisations, the next generation within the legal sector will be even more happy to be fully themselves in the workplace.

John McElroy shared his experience with The Lawyer which published it first as part of their 'My Pride Story' series to celebrate Pride during June. John is Head of Commercial Disputes for the London office and a committee member of the London Solicitors Litigation Association (LSLA).