Law Firm Pride. Or, why it might look like law firms prefer gay lawyers to women lawyers

It’s Pride Month. A time for celebration (on which note: go watch Todrick Hall’s ‘Nail Hair Hips Heels’ video if you have not already done so; it will bring you joy). This year I’ve (very kindly) had a couple of invites to Pride events at City law firms from the organisers of the LGBT+ networks inside those firms. It reminds me of when I was in practice (now some time ago) and helped to set up the LGBT+ network at Latham & Watkins. Having been chair of that network, and having done some research as an academic on the role of those networks, I became curious about other forms of law firm employee affinity groups. And so, over the summer of 2016, I worked with a research assistant (Laura Kendrick) to collect data from the websites of the top 100 law firms. My initial sense before collecting the data was that lots of firms probably had lots of different groups, but I wasn’t exactly sure where they were or exactly which groups were in existence. This is what we found, split by law firm rankings:

Top 100 Law Firm Employee Networks (Summer 2016)**

Firm Ranking Women LGBT+ Ethnicity Religion Family Disability
1-10  8    80%  9   90%  6    60%  5    50%  6    60%  2     20%
11-25  10   67%  13  87%  5     33%  7   47%  2    13%  5   33%
26-50  6    24%  6     24%  1      4%  1      4%  3     12%  0    0%
51-100  1   2%  4   8%  1    2%  1     2%  3   6% 1      2%
Overall  25 (26%)  32 (33%)  13 (13%)  14 (14%)  14 (14%)  8 (8%)

This data looks a little odd, I think. 25 of the top 100 law firms had a women’s network. But 32 of the top 100 law firms had a LGBT lawyers network. Why is that? And why, in the case of Slaughter and May and Simmons & Simmons, were the LGBT+ networks created before the women’s networks (2009: 2013 for the former; and 2006:2008 for the latter)? Lots of things may be going on here. It may be that minority lawyers (LGBT+ lawyers, BAME lawyers, lawyers with disabilities etc) are treated by firms differently than women lawyers, in the sense that the large numbers of women inside those law firms mean that a single committee for women would not make sense. That, instead, issues linked to gender are built in (implicitly or explicitly) into everything the firm does. That might be the case. So, for example, Kingsley Napley does not have a women’s network. Instead, it has a Diversity & Inclusion Group and a LGBT group. But the firm is 62% female and only 22% male (the rest giving no response to the firm’s data collection exercise or preferring not to say); the managing partner is a women (Linda Wooley); and a third of its department heads are women. This might be a firm which, justifiably, does not see the need for a separate women lawyers network. If this is what is going on in some of the firms who do not say that they have women’s networks, then what is also perhaps a little odd is that those firms do not explain that that is the case on their websites (i.e. it’s hard to find “This is exactly how we support women lawyers in this firm” sort of statements by those firms).  The data might also look odd because the data is wrong (in the sense that firms might not be making public their employee affinity networks; or might not have updated their websites; or the data on the websites being incorrect in some way).

There is, however, a third explanation. And it is a somewhat uncomfortable hypothesis. Do law firms prefer gay lawyers over women lawyers? And is that preferencing seen in the institutional approval (and funding?) of more LGBT+ lawyer networks than women lawyers networks? The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I swapped LGBT+ for “gay” in the third sentence of this para. That was intentional. One of the other elements of my research is concerned with who participates (and in what ways) in law firm LGBT+ networks. This work shows that these groups are largely, but not exclusively, comprised of gay men. So much is this the case that in December 2016 I was part of a panel debate at Norton Rose Fulbright organized by Laura Hodgson (co-founder and co-chair of NRF’s Pride network and former co-chair of Interlaw) titled ‘Where have all the women gone? A lively discussion of female participation in LGBT professional networks’.

When we look at the wider research on women and the legal profession, especially the solicitor’s branch, we see discussion of the following things that are playing a part in how women lawyers experience their careers, summarised here in a research report for The Law Society:

long hours culture, dismissive views of part-time lawyers and mothers, workload allocation practices and also the need to socialise with clients (in some types of firm) involving sport and drinking or “female friendly activities” such as chocolate making courses, and the need to dress in certain ways (skirts, high heels, make-up) and be willing to accept a degree of sexualised behaviour such as flirting and touching from some high-profile male partners of clients

My research, and my own experiences, suggest (but do not, to be clear, confirm) that gay men might be thought of by law firms in different ways to women. The majority of gay male lawyers do not have children (I recall one partner telling me it was great that I could work late because I didn’t have any kids at home making demands on my time) and may be able to assimilate into a long-hours, drinking-heavy etc culture in a way that some (many?) women do not or can not. This is just an idea. And it’s one I would be very happy to be proven wrong on. But there is something odd in the top 100 firms having more LGBT lawyer networks than women lawyer networks. And the reasons behind that difference are not immediately obvious. It’s Pride month. And I’m proud to be gay. But I’m also worried about the data I’ve just been discussing. It would seem a regressive step for diversity for firms to put effort and resources into their LGBT+ lawyers at the expense of their (non-LGBT+) women lawyers.

 

** – I get that my employee network data is now three years old. It’s something I hope to update later this year to see how things have (or have not) changed.

 

One thought on “Law Firm Pride. Or, why it might look like law firms prefer gay lawyers to women lawyers

  1. Or of course solicitors could stick to the practice of law and let staff form their own networks. I wonder, though, what would happen if I tried to form a men’s network in my 60% female office?

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