INTERVIEW: Why law firms are joining forces to make the most of LGBT talent

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The InterLaw Forum will meet for the fourth time later this week.

Intended to strengthen diversity within the London legal sector and promote the recruitment, retention and advancement of LGBT talent at all levels of the profession, it has proved popular from the start.

The launch event, held at the National Gallery in April, was hosted by international law firm Simmons and Simmons and attended by 300 people from 47 law firms and other 39 financial and corporate institutions.

Daniel Winterfeldt told that when he joined Simmons and Simmons it had structure, networks and support for staff that impressed him.

As the founder of InterLaw, he and the forum have been supported by the firm in the most visible way – his managing partner attended the launch.

“That spoke volumes to people,” he told, “from the magic circle and to very small firms.

“Simmons has done things like this for a long time … and you do realise it isn’t like this everywhere.

“People reached out to us and it’s a place where we can network and find support.”

Hired as an openly gay partner, Winterfeldt had previously established a forum for US lawyers working in London and thought that a similar group for gay people in the legal profession would work.

“The idea in a law firm generally is that everything is competitive,” he said.

“As the younger generation we tried a different approach. The areas we competed in were natural areas of competition, and there were other areas where you could work together, an idea that by developing it together you could actually improve things.”

The legal profession has a poor reputation for workplace equality.

In 2006 a Law Society report revealed that the “macho” culture of law firms hinders gay and lesbian lawyers from coming out at work, fearing it will affect their career progression.

The society’s first report on the career experiences of LGB solicitors discovered that employees felt restricted by perceptions and expectations of discrimination.

The report described “constant trips to Spearmint Rhino (a lap dancing club chain), rugby matches and drinking sessions” as having undertones of homophobia.

Winterfeldt cites JP Morgan’s decision in May 2007 to instruct law firms it patronises to bring their policies on gay and lesbian staff up to standard as a “critical change in the market.”

One of the world’s largest financial services companies then invited 15 external law firms to attend a meeting with Stonewall to learn about best practice towards homosexual and bisexual staff.

In an interview with The Lawyer JP Morgan’s assistant general counsel and managing director Tim Hailes said that a commitment to workplace equality would be a factor when choosing external contractors.

Winterfeldt said JP Morgan’s stance caused shock in many firms – “partner’s jaws dropped to the ground” – but it put workplace equality on the agenda.

Especially as to be seen to do nothing could lead to a loss of business.

“I came up with the concept of InterLaw,” he said.

“People started asking ‘why is the legal sector not under performing as a group,’ so we had to give group reasons for it, that if you work as a group you can pull people up as a group.

“It’s different than a corporate structure, law firms have a different history, and a different management structure, the partnership is very different.”

Winterfeldt rejects the assertion that, with homosexuality illegal just four decades ago, the legal profession has always been more cautious about gay staff.

“When it comes to legality law firms are going to be extra conservative, after all law firms are the gate keepers for the law,” he said.

“It’s how your reputation has a direct impact.

“Law firms would never do something which has a negative impact on the law.

“Law firms would never do something which directly or indirectly would have legal problems.

“We are an international law firm, but in places like Asia or Dubai we have a lot of other challenges, like cultural and legal ones.

“There are various international jurisdictions that law firms need to handle, which a lot of people who appear on Stonewall’s workplace quality index don’t need to handle.

“That was another reason which made me think about Interlaw – you can have an entire evening where law firms come in, corporates come in and talk about international diversity and challenges, and come out with solutions as a group and share ideas.”

Winterfeldt is keen to stress that Interlaw is open to LGBT lawyers and to staff networks in firms of any size, not just the magic circle.

“Part of our mission is that we provide guidance and support to the legal community, to encourage cooperation, and also to provide guidance and support to employers to develop their ability to diversity and inclusion strategy,” he explained.

“What gets peoples attention the most is doing the right thing and having a business case.

“The more you can take articles that appear in The Lawyer and Legal Week and place them in front of your partners, that kind of thing is quite powerful,” he says by way of advice for gay lawyers who want to persuade their firm to participate in InterLaw.

“Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s also important to clients.”

For more information on the InterLaw forum email [email protected]