Until 1991, unmarried men and women – including gay and lesbian lawyers – were excluded from entering the judiciary. Unsurprisingly, homophobia, or at least a strong perception of it, still lingers. According to recent research by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender legal group Interlaw, 70% of LGBT lawyers believe there is prejudice within the selection process for judicial office.
The judicial appointments committee (JAC) – the body founded in 2006 to enhance judicial accountability – is keen to remedy this. Last month, it began monitoring the sexuality of wannabe judges (it already monitors gender, ethnicity, age, professional background and disability). The JAC is also increasing its engagement with the gay lawyer community through talks at LGBT legal events and the publishing of case studies of gay judges.
The most recent of these talks took place at Interlaw’s monthly September meeting, hosted by corporate law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse. Disappointingly, the JAC was unable to get any of the few openly gay judges – who include the court of appeal judge Sir Terence Etherton, the high court and international criminal court judge Sir Adrian Fulford and the circuit judge Jeremy Richardson – to come along and speak.
Instead Tan Ikram, a heterosexual district judge, shared his experiences of what it’s like to hold a judicial post as a member of a minority group. Ikram’s frank talk was useful in the respect that it demystified the judicial appointments process, but the attempt to conflate the obstacles facing judicial candidates from Asian backgrounds with those who are gay was perhaps not entirely successful.
Not that the 30 or so attendees seemed overly bothered. There may be widespread suspicion about the judicial selection process, and eye-rolling about the JAC’s stuttering response, but the dominant mood among LGBT lawyers right now is optimism. Daniel Winterfeldt, a partner at CMS Cameron McKenna who founded Interlaw in 2008, said:
"A new generation of junior lawyers who are out and open about their sexuality, and expect it not to be an issue, have fundamentally changed attitudes, and will keep changing them as they rise through the profession."
The mood is reflected in the dramatically improved recent performance of law firms in the top 100 employers rankings compiled by the gay rights charity Stonewall – formulated on the basis of a 25-question workplace equality index. In 2007 no law firms made the list; this year six were ranked.
Still, law firms remain some way from being gay utopias. A potent undercurrent of unspoken homophobia exists at some of them – a problem illustrated by a handful of online comments made in response to an article last year advising young gay lawyers on how to come out at work. One read:
"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 … I would exercise more scrutiny when deciding to hire a gay man just as I would someone with known addiction problems."
It’s little wonder, then, that law graduate Adam Fellows, who is openly gay, was advised by a junior barrister not to publicly mention the fact he had a boyfriend during his hunt for a traineeship.
Another concern is how international corporate law firms increasingly apply anti-discrimination policies in their offices in countries where homophobia is the norm. Prominent gay City lawyers I spoke to were notably reluctant to be quoted on this thorny issue. "The ‘What happens in Dubai?’ question isn’t something the big firms seem to like to focus on," said Andrea Woelke, a lawyer specialising in family law who heads the other main legal LGBT group, the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association (LAGLA).
Then there is the frequently bemoaned dominance of legal LGBT groups by a certain type of confident gay man. Just 30% of LAGLA’s members are female. The majority of the attendees at September’s Interlaw-JAC event were men, with most of the sprinkling of women, somewhat surprisingly, of straight sexual orientation. There was a similar demographic at a recent Interlaw "pop-up" charity club night in Soho, London, featuring several celebrity guests from the world of music, which I also attended.
One gay male lawyer I met there told me this was because "lesbians are a bit dowdy". This sort of attitude has led to suggestions that LGBT groups have lost some of their original spirit of mutual support.
"It’s not unusual for LGBT to be dominated by gay men. There is always a danger that a professional networking event can become a dating agency," said Kevin Poulter, who recently helped found the specialist Gay Employment Lawyers Network.
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