AN article counselling young gay lawyers on the tricky matters of etiquette for coming out at work includes the following advice: “Do take your significant other to the firm’s Christmas party... probably best to avoid getting heroically drunk and snogging to slow numbers”. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it has proved a controversial New Year hit on law magazine The Lawyer’s website.
“Do you come out and risk the hatred, ridicule or contempt of your colleagues and clients, or do you keep it under your hat?” opens the article. It’s probably fair to say the piece has divided its audience (“… in the year 2010, it is absolutely vile that an article like this even needs to be written,” reads one post).
But is being honest about your sexuality at work really such a massively high-risk strategy in these apparently enlightened times? “It depends on where you work, even in the City firms,” reckons Andrea Woelke, chairman of the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association. “Sometimes there is a very open culture, with gay partners who are out, diversity programs and a gay group. However, even in firms where partners are out, some departments are supportive and others very homophobic. It can be a case that the first and second floors are fantastic however the fifth floor is a totally different culture.”
Ironically, the strait-laced and conservative legal profession has lagged some way behind the sprit of the law as well as the best practice professions. You can find out just how far by checking out Stonewall’s 2010 Workplace Index, published today, which benchmarks Britain’s top employers for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff. Two years ago there wasn’t a single London law firm in the top 100, and last year there were only four. “We have gone from a position where 10 years ago it was illegal to be gay and a judge and where we didn’t see a lot of out people in the law firms,” comments Daniel Winterfeldt, a US securities partner in the international corporate practice of the London office of Simmons & Simmons. “I have seen a huge change over a decade in London.”
His firm, 31 in Stonewall’s top 100, is the highest ranking firm in the index and will be hosting the launch of the Stonewall report. Winterfeldt set up the InterLaw Diversity Forum in March 2008 to encourage diversity within the legal sector. It has some 700 members and is backed by more than 60 law firms and 40 companies. Winterfeldt has mixed feelings about the Lawyer article. “It’s tried to address a serious issue in a humorous way but missed the mark,” he says. Although he points out that the magazine has been supportive of gay rights, in particular its front page coverage of JP Morgan calling on firms to bring their diversity policies in line with the banks in May 2007. “That was quite a big moment in the City. It started the ball rolling in terms of change for lesbian and gay and transgender rights.”
Feedback on The Lawyer’s site ranges from affirmations that life is, indeed, better for gay and lesbians in the profession to depressing accounts of discrimination in the workplace as well as much response to a diatribe posted by someone styling himself as Jack Vance. “I’m sorry but all of the gay men I have known… have been heavily into gay pornography, substance abuse and late night sexual encounters,” writes Vance. “As a senior associate at a large US firm, I would exercise more scrutiny when deciding to hire a gay man just as I would someone with known addiction problems.”
“Absolutely shocking,” reckons Andrea Woelke, adding that such a view is in breach of English and European anti-discrimination laws and should possibly be investigated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Another US post has attracted attention as well. “If you want to work for White & Case and want to keep your job or have any hope of being made a partner, I would not come out of the closet,” writes one lawyer who claims to have been fired “because I am a gay”. W&C claims to have no idea who the ex employee could be and insists that sexuality is no barrier to progression. Elaine Johnston, an anti-trust partner in New York and executive partner for diversity, cites her personal experience as evidence of the firm’s credentials. “As an openly lesbian partner at White & Case I can say with full confidence that my sexual orientation has never been an impediment to my career”.
Andreas Woelke thinks the debate is welcome. “Sometimes in London you can live in a bit of a bubble,” she says. “There is civil partnership and anti-discrimination laws. But the reality is people still get beaten up and even beaten to death in Trafalgar Square.”
Jon Robins is director of the legal research company Jures (www.jures.co.uk) and a freelance journalist.