Lawyer Geraint Lloyd-Taylor writes for PinkNews.co.uk on how his profession has been transformed by becoming gay-friendly.
Few people outside the legal profession might be aware of the profound cultural shift which has taken place over the past 15 years or more behind those marble-clad lobbies, closed wooden doors and incongruous glass walls of British law firms.
During that time, leading UK law firms have gradually come to realise that providing their staff with an inclusive environment, in which all employees are respected for who they are, and treated with equal dignity (regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc), means that those employees will, in turn, be happier, more loyal and more productive.
Often perceived as bastions of archaic traditions (in fairness, who else sprinkles their conversations with Latin phrases nowadays…?!), it might be surprising to learn that, when compared to other big businesses, solicitors’ firms can almost be said to have blazed a trail in the quest for equal treatment of LGB employees. And I’m talking here about suited and booted, straight-laced solicitors (rather than barristers, who’ve been proudly going to work in wigs and gowns since long before the days of Lily Savage…)
Even the largest and most ‘traditional’ firms of solicitors have now come to accept that allowing their gay lawyers to be open about their lives and relationships hasn’t turned the world upside down, or tarnished the reputation of their firm, or put off any prospective or current clients. On the contrary, most clients are reassured to know (some even actively demand) that their law firm provides equal opportunities and a supportive environment for all its staff, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.
We have now reached an era where firms are clambering over one another to be recognised as advocates of equal rights and opportunities, and to be ranked by Stonewall in its annual Workplace Equality Index.
Regular readers of PinkNews will be familiar with Stonewall’s index. It’s essentially Stonewall’s own yardstick by which companies of all kinds are measured and ranked for the ‘gay friendliness’ of their policies, activities and culture.
Unfortunately, some companies treat this merely as a ‘box-ticking’ exercise; an opportunity to tinker with never-read employment handbooks and policies, without seizing the opportunity to improve the day to day culture of the firm.
Given Stonewall’s arguably prescriptive and quite dogmatic style, a cynic might suggest that companies and law firms which treat equality as a box-ticking exercise (without making any real efforts to bring about any meaningful cultural change), are actually ranked more generously than companies and law firms (such as mine) which have concentrated their limited resources on ensuring they provide a diverse, inclusive, open and nurturing environment for all their staff – including, but not limited to, LGB staff.
However, the good news is that a significant number of law firms have genuinely achieved positive cultural change, including the firms where it was most needed. These changes have not only resulted in a better quality of life for current and future LGB employees and their families, but they have also brought abundant, immeasurable benefits to the firm itself, its managers and partners, and even to the their current and future clients.
Of course, the changes taking place in law firms are partly just a reflection of the changes which have been going on across the country, and across most of western society, during the past 15 years or more. Understandably therefore, as a society, our focus has recently shifted to countries where the same values are not shared, such as Russia and Nigeria. In Russia for example, injustices are not only carried out by thugs in the streets, who are able to brazenly inflict injury and humiliation without consequence, but injustices are also being enshrined into law – supported and driven by politicians, lawyers and officials.
With so many wrongs seemingly being ‘made right’ in our own country, and with so much patent injustice going on elsewhere, the quiet revolution which has been taking place inside the legal profession in Britain could easily pass by unnoticed and unrecorded.
But that would be a shame.
Why? Because the changes taking place in law firms are important not just for lawyers, but for society as a whole. We can quite confidently say that, in Britain at least, positive social change isn’t happening despite lawyers, or without lawyers, it is happening to lawyers, and, in part, thanks to lawyers.
Not everyone will agree with that statement, of course. But I believe it is vitally important that the message gets out to anyone who is interested in the law, and interested in fighting for and protecting the rights of others: There is a place for you in the legal profession, regardless of your gender, age, race or sexual orientation.
And, whilst the changing culture of law firms might not be as ‘newsworthy’ as the latest announcement that yet another one hit wonder from the 90s has ‘come out of the closet’ before they step into the Big Brother house or celebrity jungle, I still think it warrants a mention!
So let’s keep looking on the bright side… it’s obviously not just lawyers who are making progress. Progress is all around us. If you listen carefully, through the white-noise of vacuous Z-list celebs, ‘scripted-reality’ TV shows, and videos about cats doing funny things, you’ll hear ordinary people championing all sorts of worthy causes.
And we can all play a part in supporting anyone with a just cause, who wants to live their life with dignity, honesty and integrity, free from oppression and injustice, whether straight or gay, man or woman, Olympian or referee, pop star or politician, Archbishop or atheist, lawyer or protester, and everyone in between. We can all play a part in ensuring everyone is allowed to speak their mind freely, live their life openly, and be a proud ambassador for whichever cause they believe in – whether or not we agree with what they have to say. Vive la différence.
Geraint Lloyd-Taylor is a Senior Associate at Lewis Silkin LLP