‘Sexual orientation’ is a term encompassing multiple facets of a person and is misleading in that it is much more than ‘sexual’. Often overlooked within society is the fact that a person’s sexual orientation covers the vast emotional and romantic dimensions of their identity. Sexual orientation is not just who someone has sex with; it is who they choose to be in a relationship with and who they develop emotional attachments to. For some, these aspects of themselves are completely isolated from one another – for example, they may be aromantic or asexual.
As a lesbian, it has taken a while to take my sexual orientation seriously. Growing up, it felt as if even the suggestion of homosexuality was taboo – warranting negative attention. Not only did this obstruct me from accepting my identity, but it was also confusing when it came to career choices.
From a young age, I knew that I wanted to attend university and pursue a career which was intellectual and challenging. However, messages that I had internalised – that my sexual orientation was ‘bad’ – and a vast lack of LGBTQ+ role models were barriers. My only lesbian ‘role models’ were celebrities, and as a result, I had a hard time imagining how ‘someone like me’ could achieve highly in the career path that I desired.
Although it is becoming increasingly common to see women in leadership, I find that LGBTQ+ visibility in leadership is still severely lacking today.
What does this have to do with law?
By understanding that a person’s ‘sexual orientation’ encompasses so many parts of themselves, it becomes easier to perceive the importance of being able to bring this to work. In any job role, it’s difficult to imagine the hardship of keeping oneself ‘in check’ and not feeling comfortable to reveal your true self to colleagues.
The legal profession can sometimes be portrayed as traditional, patriarchal and rigid. As a non-law graduate, I can attest that, to an outsider, it can seem that way. As such, it can be an intimidating prospect for an LGBTQ+ lawyer to put themselves ‘out there’, risking judgement from colleagues, employers or even clients. It takes blood, sweat and tears to carve out a successful legal career. Therefore, the last thing a trainee would wish to risk is inhibiting their own progression.
It is inspiring to see, then, the great strides of the LGBTQ+ community within law. Some firms are now Stonewalls top employers – such as Pinsent Masons or Baker McKenzie – while many others have established diversity networks, such as Herbert Smith Freehills' IRIS Network. In addition, many firms run events specifically aimed at LGBTQ+ applicants!
One event that I recently attended was Clifford Chance’s ACCEPT Conference 2020, which happened to be the first time I have ever heard from a lesbian partner at a law firm. As well as discussions with the firm’s LGBTQ+ senior figures, the event hosted external speakers, such as BBC journalists and charity representatives. This was a great opportunity to meet fellow applicants, knowing that we already had something in common, and helped me to form a view on the firm’s approach to inclusivity.
My advice to any LGBTQ+ aspiring lawyer is to keep your ear to the ground and attend these types of event. They’re easy to attend now that everything is virtual – all you need is a nice shirt! Not only do they help you to identify which firms offer support, but they also help you to gain a confident view of the firm’s culture and how you may fit within this.
You may share a nearly identical professional skillset to other applicants, but what will always set you apart is your life experiences. Sometimes, these have been painful. Rather than hiding it away, ‘owning’ your identity allows you to use these experiences constructively, knowing that it brings an informed, unique perspective to your work. This diverse approach to working, and the irreplaceable viewpoint that you contribute to a team, is valuable in any field.
Law, like society, is progressing. As the next generation, it’s up to us to weave our perspectives into the legal profession and to build infrastructure for long-term change. Every time we feel safe enough to be who we are, we are setting a precedent for everyone who comes after. Particularly to members of the LGBTQ+ community who may already be lawyers – I would encourage you to share your experiences with others, as it really does instil confidence to see tangible examples of success.