updated on 12 April 2022
Reading time: 16 minutes
Diversity and inclusion is at the forefront of most firms. But how can you tell which firms are truly inclusive and supportive? What more can firms, and your peers, be doing to support you on your journey into the legal profession and beyond?
We spoke to private client lawyer Anna Casey-Woodward (they/them) and consultant solicitor and collaborative family lawyer Bridget Garrood (she/her) about their experiences of being queer in the legal profession. They open up about their journeys into law and the obstacles they’ve faced, share their insights on what firms can be doing to create more inclusive and diverse workplaces, and impart their advice to candidates looking for genuinely inclusive firms.
Please can you tell us a bit about your journey into the profession and your role on the Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee?
Anna: My name is Anna and I use they/them pronouns. I’m a tax lawyer, working in the private client team at regional firm Royds Withy King. I am leader of the regional and student engagement team on the Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee, with a focus on reaching out to students to talk about becoming a lawyer and being queer in law. I’ve also more recently started to focus on geographical areas where there isn’t that much representation and consider how we can expand our reach to help those areas.
Bridget: I’m Bridget and I use she/her pronouns. I qualified as a solicitor in 1994 and have been on the Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division Committee since February 2017. I’m a family law consultant solicitor in Exeter and the South West of England, and have advised more LGBTQ+ families than I can remember, as well as clients in family law situations that are emerging from straight marriages.
In the Law Society’s 2021 survey Pride in the Law, 52% of respondents said that there was a lack of visible LGBTQ+ role models at work – what are your thoughts on this?
Anna: It’s interesting that so many respondents identified not having visible role models considering how long lawyers have been trying to achieve better representation and inclusion at work. It speaks a lot to the specific culture of some firms – it’s nice to know that some people are finding role models but I think it’s also indicative of a continued culture of having to be more professional than personal in your work life.
Have you always felt confident to be yourself at work?
Bridget: I’ve not always felt confident to be myself at work. At the time I was admitted as a solicitor, I was very much in the closet so much so that my partner didn’t come to the ceremony. At that point, I hadn’t even come out to my family, let alone my work colleagues.
I qualified in the firm where I had trained and didn’t feel able to be myself there. In fact, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out professionally until I moved to a firm where I already had a friend who knew me, my partner, family and my stepchildren. It was only then that I felt comfortable being myself because people at the firm knew my situation before I had even arrived, which made a huge difference.
Anna: When I started on my legal journey, I felt a huge requirement to conform to what I thought a lawyer should be. This included not expressing much of my queerness. I ended up training in a firm where the use of slurs was quite common and you’d often hear partners not being particularly good allies. I then moved to a firm where, similarly to Bridget, one of the partners knew me personally and therefore knew about me as a person, which made moving into that role (my current role) as my authentic self so much easier. I’m now using my authenticity to create a culture of learning, understanding, sharing and celebrating queer identities in the hope that other people who join the firm don’t feel what I felt when I started.
Microaggressions is an issue highlighted in the Law Society survey, with 53% of bisexual respondents reporting it as an issue, 35% of lesbian/gay women and 26% of gay men – how can the legal profession educate its lawyers to prevent this negative behaviour?
Bridget: I believe it’s a case of much wider education than simply educating lawyers. Having research like that of the Law Society report Pride in the Law is an excellent starting point because it gives an understanding of where lawyers are coming from and the different experiences of the profession.
There are lots of reasons why it’s important to educate more widely. For example, I had a member of staff who needed to know that when they took new client enquiries, it wasn’t appropriate to assume that because someone had a female voice, that they would be ringing to speak about the breakdown of their marriage to a male partner. I gently explained that this assumption was unhelpful but found out later that when this person did then take an enquiry they would ask “are you married or unmarried?”, followed by “are you a lesbian?”. So, there was an aggressive use of the training they had been given because that’s obviously an inappropriate question to ask someone.
Those kinds of microaggressions are still common in some cases where people are using the training they’ve had about diversity and inclusion, in this context specifically LGBTQ+ awareness training, while also taking on board some of the unhelpful messaging we are hearing elsewhere, which undermines the other training they’ve had. It’s not sufficient to just give awareness training and hope that the message has landed, we must be aware that there are still people actively undermining this kind of work.
You can also listen to the LGBT+ Lawyers podcast, which focuses on topics of interest to both LGBTQ+ lawyers and their allies.
Often homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviours go unreported, what should the legal profession be doing to tackle this issue?
Anna: Again, I think this comes down to a firm’s culture and how on board allies are in supporting people who experience this kind of behaviour. I recently experienced this behaviour at work – a client read my pronouns in an email footer and decided that they didn’t want to work with me anymore, which meant that all the work I had done for them previously, the professionalism and advice, had been meaningless to them.
In that instance, both my firm’s HR team and my manager took this on as a matter that they needed to tackle. They were supportive and regularly checked in with me, and took steps to ensure that we would no longer work with this client. For me, it was demonstrative that even though these two people aren’t members of the LGBTQ+ community, their allyship and the firm’s culture was strong enough to mean I didn’t have to report it.
Bridget: I agree with Anna. It’s not good enough to hope for the best and believe that these matters will resolve themselves naturally because we live in more ‘enlightened’ times than was the case when I joined the profession in the early 90s. In my case, it’s useful to actively and gently let people know that I am available to talk to the firm about my experiences and what’s made a difference to me, as well as highlighting what is and isn’t helpful.
In my case, putting myself out there has taken quite a lot of confidence that I’ve built up over the past 30 years. The fact that these behaviours are still going unreported is no surprise because it does take a lot of courage to be out in the workplace. It is high-quality allyship when allies take on board these issues and raise them, and don’t rely on the people with the protected characteristics. Being an ally starts with educating yourself and finding your own understanding of the issues that people around you might face, as well as sharing your own.
Anna: One of the important things about high-quality allyship is that it doesn’t just happen when you’re around, it also happens when you’re not around. This extends beyond the LGBTQ+ community to all the other diversity strands, including race and social mobility.
Do you have any advice for candidates who are looking for firms with inclusive cultures?
Anna: I often have candidates asking me how to best identify a firm that is genuinely promoting a workspace with strong allyship and representation versus firms/people who are just performative allies or even worse: rainbow washing and cashing in on appearing to be allies.
You must test the boundaries – what do people say and know? When you go to interviews, find out what your interviewers know. If the answers you receive are short, shallow or even negative, you know that it isn’t part of the firm’s culture. Ask questions about who is in the network, what they do; is it run by the queer community for the queer community? Do they point you in the direction of a HR manager to find out more? You can find out so much by asking questions and being slightly nosey. If it’s not genuine allyship, it will crumble quickly!
Read LCN’s Oracle ‘How do I figure out which law firms value diversity and inclusion?’ for some more advice.
Introducing the option to include pronouns in email signatures is a step that lots of organisations are implementing. What other actions can law firms take to create an inclusive profession for non-binary lawyers and clients?
Anna: We need to take away our linguistic assumptions. For example, when you take an enquiry from the phone and hear what you interpret to be a female voice, you might then automatically assign she/her pronouns to that person. If we stop doing this and start to use gender-neutral pronouns, you create a space for the client to then inform you of their pronouns. It’s also important to not assume someone’s family structure – use gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’.
Linguistically we expose quite a lot of the unconscious bias that we hold. Therefore, using more gender-neutral terms and offering something of yourself – for example, sharing your own pronouns – creates a space for people to customise their experience with you, meaning they don’t have to fight your assumptions of them.
Have you read ‘LGBTQ+ history: how the legal profession can be a better ally’?
You’ve listed the work you do for your LGTBQ+ clients as one of your career highlights. Please could you briefly outline the type of work and the importance of this work?
Bridget: This kind of work has changed hugely over the past 28 to 30 years. Families have changed but the problems that families face are very similar to those I faced when I was more junior.
Over the years, the firm and myself became known in my community and the South-West of England as a place where LGBTQ+ people could expect an appropriate welcome. The firm where I was partner for 20 years was based in Exeter – it was a high street firm, away from the main part of the city. In the early days there was a rainbow sticker in the window that signalled you were gay friendly. I not only advised lesbian and gay clients but also clients from Exeter’s local gender clinic. I had to educate myself, with their help, about the problems they were facing.
The sort of legal problems we were dealing with at this stage included trans people having their children taken away by social services. This was a familiar situation for me in the sense that acting for lesbian parents had also caused issues where women were considered bad mothers if they had left their husbands for another woman, with a strong chance that they would lose their children. We used quite creative structures under the Children Act. I was able to transfer this creativity to my work with trans people.
One of my career highlights has been helping several trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate. As we have seen in recent years, this can be an incredibly distressing and difficult process. I’m also proud to have been involved with lobbying for and consulting on things like the Civil Partnership Act before it was an act.
In short, some of the things I advise on in my work as a family lawyer include cohabitation agreements, civil partnership agreements, talking about pension survivor rights, inheritance and wills, parenting arrangements and agreements, fertility law, and talking about the option to marry or enter into a civil partnership, which until recently only same-sex couples had those options. The more specialised things include attaining a gender recognition certificate, and the other bits that go alongside that including change of name, changing your passport and other types of documents that require gender marker amends, protection of confidentiality and data for trans people.
Other particular things include advising on the spousal veto under the Gender Recognition Act and the very specialist ways that people can be discriminated against in terms of their pension rights, which is still a source of inequality for LGBTQ+ people.
Solicitor and director of The Modern Family Law Company Deborah Baxter shares her journey into law in ‘Following the rainbow – 30 years as an LGBT lawyer’ and talks about some of the work The Modern Family Law Company undertakes.
Can you explain the aim of guides including the gender-neutral drafting guide and the guide to transitioning at work?
Anna: This is the start of a raft of documents designed to reflect the modern relationship that people, be they staff members or clients, have with gender. There seems to be less adherence to a binary gender experience and therefore lawyers need to catch up. The idea is that we need to uplift and update the language we use to accurately reflect the relationship that people have with gender.
In terms of The Guide to Transitioning at Work, obtaining a gender recognition certificate is quite an emotional and difficult process, it’s not just an administrative action – I think this guide is useful in helping employers to understand the difficulties that someone who is transitioning goes through and appropriate ways to support them that will be practically helpful.
Can you talk about the impact that the 2005 Career Experiences of Gay and Lesbian Solicitors research study had on the profession?
Bridget: I was one of about 10 solicitors who were studied for this piece of research by the Law Society. The recommendations that were made in the report at the time were very interesting. We can now look back to see whether the Law Society has fulfilled any of these recommendations.
One of them was to provide a confidential helpline for gay and lesbian solicitors. Another was to set up or endorse a group for gay and lesbian solicitors – 10 years later the Law Society started the LGBT+ Lawyers Division. Very soon after this division was created, we managed to secure a seat on the Law Society council allocated to the LGBT+ Lawyers Division.
There was also an ambition for the Law Society to host a stall at a Gay Pride. Many years later, the Law Society and the Bar, Lesbian and Gay group joined together with CILEX, and others, to enable lawyers whose firms didn’t have a presence at pride to come together, walk together and make new networks. One of my happiest memories of the work I’ve done with the Law Society was attending Pride in Birmingham with the Solicitors Regulation Authority and meeting for the first time I. Stephanie Boyce and Simon Davis when they were deputy vice president and vice president, respectively. It was a wonderful moment to hold onto personally and professionally. From the ambition to have a stall at a pride to now have a president who is an active ally is wonderful.
Looking forward, how can colleagues be better LGBTQ+ allies?
Anna: In terms of colleagues being better allies in the workplace, one of the key things is checking the language that you use, which includes removing any gendered language. Some things that particularly bother me are when people say “hey guys” or when the default salutation on letters is “Dear Sir or Madam”.
Moving forward, don’t always expect someone’s pronouns to be the same because someone’s gender expression can be diverse over their lifetime. Don’t just be an ally when the person is around – it’s more useful for someone to be an ally when I’m not around. I would rather have colleagues backing me up when I’m not there to fight for myself.
For some extra information, read the LGBT+ Lawyers Division Trans and Non-Binary Inclusion project’s documents, including the ‘Transition and change to gender expression template’ and ‘Using pronouns in the workplace’.
In your Law Society bio, you highlight your passion for LGBTQ+ representation and firms moving towards genuine belief in the benefits of diversity and away from tokenism and performative allyship – what do you want to see from the legal profession over the next five years?
Anna: Five years is a long time. In terms of what I think we will tackle in the next five to 10 years, I’m looking at wider acceptance, understanding and knowledge about the trans and non-binary community. I see the fruits of what people have done in the 1980s and 1990s to gain acceptance for gay and lesbian lawyers, and I think we are now starting on a very similar journey for trans and non-binary people. So in the next five years it would be nice to see firms doing away with gendered language and promoting wide use of introducing yourself with your name and pronouns. We also need to be more honest about how rampant biphobia is and start tackling that too.
What would your advice be for LGBTQ+ aspiring lawyers considering a career in law?
Bridget: As an LGBTQ+ lawyer, don’t think of yourself as someone who needs to be accepted and tolerated. Be proud of yourself and your place in the LGBTQ+ history of the legal profession because you have overcome, and will continue to overcome, barriers for yourself and your clients. That is what a lawyer does – whatever branch of the profession you’re in, whether that’s drafting wills, taking human rights cases or advising Ukrainian refugees, you will be helping and supporting your clients to overcome obstacles. So, the fact that you have overcome obstacles to become a lawyer is the absolute asset that employers should be fighting over themselves to have you in the firm. They should be celebrating you. Hold onto that.
Anna: I tend to pass on advice that I was given after reaching out to two trans women at an event. I told them that I felt powerless, and that there was so much I wanted to achieve in increasing my firm’s diversity and inclusion offering, but I felt like I was just not getting anywhere. They both said to me “do it first, and ask for forgiveness later”. Make the world the way you want it to be and firms will, in time, recognise the inherent value of what you’ve done and congratulate you for it.
If you’re interested in joining The Law Society’s LGBT+ Lawyers Division, or just want to stay up to date with what they’re doing head to ‘About’ section of the LGBT+ Lawyers Division’s page.