Legal Business Blogs

‘We’ve gone a long way but are by no means complacent’ – embedding LGBTQ+ inclusion in the legal profession

Travers Smith partner and senior LGBTQ+ champion Daniel Gerring discusses with Legal Business the importance for law firms to avoid complacency and how they should continue to persevere with LGBTQ+ inclusion.

What was your personal journey regarding coming out in the profession?

Like a lot of young people starting work, I went back into the closet. After being out at university and in law school, I felt that I wanted to test the water at work before deciding what to do. Being back in the closet was strange and challenging – not being able to be yourself is hard for most people. When I did eventually come out, overall, I had a very good experience. I was at Allen & Overy at that stage and even back then – back in the early 2000s – it was already an inclusive firm with some really great role models. I did have an interesting moment with a drunk colleague very shortly after I came out. She said, ‘Have you met my trainee? He’s marvelously gay!’. It wasn’t meant with any malice, but it made me feel really uncomfortable being reduced to a stereotype, so much so that I still remember it vividly more than 20 years later.

Regarding coming out, the thing is that it isn’t a ‘one and done’ process – you have to keep doing it. When you go to the hairdressers and they ask you about your weekend, you have to decide whether or not to stay in the closet. It’s the same with clients and people you’re working with, and it isn’t immediately obvious how they will react. I remember having a client I was close with doing a very intense deal and, because I was wearing a wedding ring at the time, she always asked about my wife. I didn’t correct her early on and then it became too awkward to do anything about it until the deal was finished. I needn’t have worried as she was great, but it’s just another thing to have to think about and which can use up your energy unnecessarily.

You’ve done a lot of work, both in the legal sector and beyond, aimed at supporting LGBTQ+ people and causes. What do you think are some of the main challenges for LGBTQ+ inclusion, and do you feel an obligation to use your own experience to help others and be a role model?

The concept of being a role model is interesting. When I was a very junior partner, someone talked about me as a role model, and I remember feeling instinctively very uncomfortable and a bit like a fraud being labelled that way. But, reasonably quickly, particularly because I was in a firm where I was the only openly LGBTQ+ partner at the time, I felt that I had a responsibility to try and help other people by being visible.

Doing work on LGBTQ+ inclusion is part of a wider personal commitment I have to social justice and the rights of minority and disadvantaged groups. I’m also not a believer in the phrase of doing the gay job’ alongside ‘the day job’. I see promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion and social justice as core parts of my identity, both at work and beyond.

I started on that journey with more of a focus on social mobility – taking on my first non-exec role when I was a trainee in my early 20s. LGBTQ+ inclusion followed, alongside a focus on homelessness and social housing as well as refugees and asylum seekers.

Sadly, there are many challenges still out there. Part of the problem is that there’s a lot of complacency around the rights of LGBTQ+ people. In the UK, people too often look at the LGBTQ+ community, particularly the LGB community, and say, ‘you got what you wanted – you can get married and have kids,’ and in a very narrow sense that is correct. But if you go below the surface there’s all sorts of issues. As a relatively new parent, I have seen examples of officialdom at its worst and a legal system creaking at the edge trying to cope with alternative families. I have experienced prejudice as a gay dad which (perhaps complacently) I thought was largely in the past. The safety of LGBTQ+ people is also not something to take for granted. The Office for National Statistics most recently reported that hate crimes based on sexual orientation are up by 112% in England and Wales in the last five years and this figure is much worse – at 186% – for trans people. The position in many other countries is still more concerning, including many Commonwealth States with legacy anti-LGBTQ+ British colonial laws.

As a firm, Travers Smith is committed to walking the walk and not just talking on these issues. For example, we have sponsored a PhD student at the University of Cambridge to support her research on LGBTQ+ issues. We also worked with the charity GiveOut to set up the GiveOut LGBTQI Legal Aid Fund. Through the fund, GiveOut has partnered with leading law firms including Travers Smith and A&O Shearman to channel financial and pro bono legal support to LGBTQ+ organisations around the world, including in South Asia and East Africa. As well as sitting on the board of GiveOut, I’m also chair of Just Like Us (JLU), a young people’s LGBTQ+ charity which now works with over half of the secondary schools in the UK. We’ve worked closely with JLU over the past seven years to develop a mentoring programme aimed at supporting you LGBTQ+ graduates transition from student life to the workplace. Over that time, we’ve worked with hundreds of students to help them feel more confident and comfortable with their identity, and to empower them to be role models of the future.

How has the industry improved since you began your career?

The industry has improved markedly, and we have some amazing younger talent coming through, including many great new role models.

When I started, there were some great examples of good practice, but overall, there were an awful lot of issues and a lot of firms where LGBTQ+ people felt deeply uncomfortable. The truth of the matter is, when I joined Travers Smith in 2009, I didn’t feel comfortable at all. People were incredibly kind and personable, but it lulled them into a false sense of security, thinking, ‘We’re a nice firm, therefore we can’t have any problems’. In reality, there were problems, quite a lot around banter and just not thinking about how to be inclusive. What we’ve done at Travers Smith is to be honest with ourselves and thoughtfully implement change. We’ve gone a long way but are by no means complacent. Our LGBTQ+ Network Group plays a key role in continuing to drive change and I am delighted to support its work as our Senior LGBTQ+ Champion.

Within the sector generally, there have been some major strides to improve things. Along with some awesome colleagues from across the profession, I was involved in setting up the LGBTQ+ Division of the Law Society of England and Wales. I have been delighted to see how the Division has grown over recent years, spreading best practice and providing support to solicitors across the country. Alongside this, we are fortunate to have groups such as the InterLaw Diversity Forum, which, under the leadership of Daniel Winterfeldt, continues to go from strength to strength.

What more do you think needs to be done to embed LGBTQ+ inclusion in the law?

There are a few themes I would concentrate on. The first is retention of LGBTQ+ staff and partners. There remains a real lack of research around LGBTQ+ people in the law, but the research that does exist indicates that many firms find it harder to retain LGBTQ+ people, even when they’re successfully recruiting diverse candidates. Law firms need to ensure they are not being complacent and continue to persevere to make workplaces more inclusive. We need to listen to our colleagues and continue to push boundaries.

I also think we have made big strides in the G, and to some regards with the L, but we need to do more in terms of bi inclusion and representation. There is too often a suggestion that it’s easier for bi people ‘because they have choices’ but I’ve never heard of a bi person – when actually asked – who relates to that proposition.

Critically, we need to do much more to support trans people. Trans representation at law firms remains poor. We should take our lead from out trans colleagues on what they need, but there are unquestionably areas where most employers could still make relatively small changes, such as on healthcare and health-related leave, which could massively improve people’s lives.

The last point I’d add is something which is very personal to me, and that relates to families. I am lucky in that Travers Smith has an excellent family policy for same-sex couples and single parents. When my son was born, I was the primary carer, and I felt I needed and wanted to take a significant period of leave to be with him. Travers Smith’s policy treated me just as it would a female partner or member of staff who had had a baby, both in terms of the amount of time I could take and my remuneration. Somewhat surprisingly, this approach remains quite unusual and I’m not aware of another senior, male, City law partner who has taken the best part of a year away from his firm after having a child (if there are some and I don’t know them, I’d love to meet them). For firms which haven’t yet made this change to their policies – I’d politely ask, ‘Why not?’. It could be a real game changer for one of your colleagues now or in the future. LB