‘Traditionally mentoring has been associated with the straight white male world’

Getting advice from experienced LGBT lawyers who are confident enough to be themselves helped Miles Tonkin secure a training contract at Herbert Smith Freehills

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Traditionally mentoring has been associated with the straight white male world. And there is no doubt that the “Old Boys’ Club” has been very effective in its bringing together of like-minded people at different stages of their careers to facilitate professional advancement.

In the past lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and other minority groups had less access to this kind of network. But the huge strides that major law firms have made in terms of diversity over recent years means that we now have equivalents, and I have been fortunate enough to benefit from this.

Indeed, being assigned a mentor two years ago after I attended DiversCity in Law was one of the things that helped me most to obtain my training contract with Herbert Smith Freehills.

Following on from the event I was paired with a senior associate at Freshfields who subsequently helped me decide which firms I wanted to apply to and gave me advice on the application form and interview process. There is only so much you can glean from careers’ websites; talking regularly to someone in that world takes you to a different level as an applicant.

Gaining access to the City law firm LGBT network while a student has other indirect benefits. Perhaps the most important is role models. For me it was very good to see not just how many senior LGBT people there are, but how they are able to be themselves.

In particular, it was inspiring to see how these lawyers feel comfortable talking about elements of their personal life — such as the gender of their partners — in a work setting. Contrary to popular stereotype, you don’t have to fit the cookie cutter neutral lawyer stereotype.

This may not sound such a big deal but it’s important to remember that young LGBT people are often at the point where they have just left a very difficult few years of their lives behind. I was lucky at school and with my supportive family, but you speak to many LGBT students who have been the target of quite bad homophobic bullying. Anything that shows them that their working life will not be like that is very valuable.

Another thing that you hear about from older LGBT lawyers is how times have changed. The last 20 years has seen a revolution in mainstream attitudes towards LGBT people. It is sad to hear about some of the discrimination they faced and a relief that this sort of thing doesn’t happen any more. I honestly have never felt any homophobia while at law school or during my training contract.

There are potentially delicate issues, though, that it is useful to receive advice on how to handle. The issue of how you approach your sexuality in training contract applications is one. The guiding principle is that it is not relevant but nor should you conceal it.

If, for instance, you have held a leadership role in an LGBT organisation while at university, that is directly relevant to your capacity to become a corporate lawyer — so you should definitely mention it in your application and be prepared to talk about it at interview.

Another issue that tends to come up at international law firms is how LGBT lawyers handle the possibility of secondments in parts of the world where homosexuality is illegal and how they work on deals or cases where there may be a clash of values.

There are stories of LGBT lawyers pulling up clients on homophobic remarks, often with support from straight LGBT allies; but other times they take a more delicate approach. Getting advice from experienced lawyers who have been in these situations is really useful — and each time this sort of thing is passed on, LGBT culture within the law gets a little bit more established.

Source: Legal Cheek

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