Stonewall is the national charitable and campaigning group for LGBT+ rights. The forum, entitled FreeBar, aims to work with all interested chambers, employers and individuals – be they LGBT+ or straight allies – to promote inclusion and best practice at the Bar. Stonewall’s tag line ‘acceptance without exception’ is the guiding principle.
The forum seeks to encourage the Bar and those who work within it to be leaders in the promotion of equality and diversity in the workplace, inspired by the success and the ongoing development of the InterLaw Diversity Forum, the law firm LGBT+ forum. We have been working closely with BLAGG – the well-established Bar Lesbian And Gay Group – that supports LGBT+ individuals at and coming to the Bar by providing advice, networking sessions and promoting LGBT+ equality via the Bar Council and the Inns of Court.
Building a culture of acceptance
Historically, the Bar has been known for being a bastion of the straight, white, public school educated males; and not a profession seen as accurately reflecting the diversity of the wider society it serves. The Bar Council has focused for many years on addressing the actual and perceived obstacles to ensuring greater equality and inclusion from the point of view of gender, black and minority ethnic, LGBT+ and disability balance among barristers and those working closely with them. Significant improvements have taken place. The combination of a greater awareness of equality issues, regulatory measures from the Bar Standards Board, and the arrival of a generation of new barristers, clerks and support staff who themselves come from more diverse backgrounds has been very helpful.
Equality and diversity issues are therefore, rightly, at the forefront of many chambers’ thinking. There is a need for initiatives to assist in identifying best practice and to create a visibly inclusive culture within organisations. The purpose of an inclusive culture is to ensure everyone knows without asking that they are welcome and feels comfortable, able to be themselves in their workplace, whoever they are. Extensive studies have established repeatedly that employees and fee earners who feel comfortable and able to be their authentic self perform better and, in turn, their organisations benefit.
Enabling individuals to truly feel they are accepted does not mean it is necessary for everyone to be ‘out’ or everyone to know everyone else’s business. LGBT+ people, like others, differ. Some are very open and others are very private. For that reason ensuring a positively inclusive culture with regard to sexual orientation is key. Barristers, clerks and support staff should not feel they must disclose their sexual orientation. A failure to ensure an inclusive culture leaves people unsure whether they would be accepted, uncomfortable and feeling they have no choice but to be private and secretive. Indeed only recently a pupil approached one of our sets to thank a senior barrister for ensuring chambers was so open and inclusive as it gave that individual the confidence that they could be themselves even in pupillage. As has been shown by Stonewall’s studies on numerous occasions, people who feel like they cannot bring the whole of themselves to work do not perform at their best. An inclusive culture improves productivity and performance in the workplace. Any chambers or body employing barristers which wishes to maximise its potential should consider it an imperative to do more than just quietly comply with its regulatory obligations and the Equality Act in protecting individuals against discrimination.
Asking what more we should do is often the response. Increasing awareness of LGBT+ issues, promoting gender neutral language and ensuring there are LGBT+ role models or Stonewall Diversity Champions in place are good starting points.
What FreeBar wants to achieve
We know that cultural change can be difficult to achieve for chambers, which can be small and extremely busy places to work, but that’s where FreeBar wants to help. We would like to provide a forum where we can exchange ideas and information about how we might tackle these changes, as well as address issues that can arise from time to time.
By joining in, promoting our events and attending our meetings, every chambers can do their part to create a strong and visible culture of acceptance for LGBT+ individuals, using our combined resources.
Our vision is three-fold:
- to provide a forum of mutual support of LGBT+ barristers, the people who work alongside them and their straight allies;
- to share best practice on workplace inclusion and maintaining this culture; and
- to promote and celebrate LGBT+ role models and allies.
All these are things that every chambers should strive to achieve. Our long-term goal is for a representative of every chambers to be involved in FreeBar, with regional networks across the country.
First steps: generating awareness
Our vision might be a long way off from our small beginnings in the meeting rooms of Matrix and Hardwicke, but our first step is generating awareness. We are contacting all heads of chambers, equality and diversity officers, diversity data officers, chief executives, chambers’ directors, and senior clerks to promote our group internally and encourage them to get in contact. Everyone is welcome. It is early days and we are interested to hear your views and ideas for how this network should develop. If you or your organisation are interested in getting involved please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. From here, we will keep you up to date with our progress.
Launch event: 17 February
We would like to invite as many people as possible to our launch event on 17 February, to be kindly hosted at Travers Smith. It will be a chance to find out more about FreeBar and network with like-minded people. We will have a panel session and Q&A with a range of speakers representing LBGT+ individuals at or close to the Bar. If you are interested in attending please email us at email@example.com for further information and to request a place.
Contributors Natalie Hearn, Matrix Chambers, and Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, Hardwicke, on behalf of FreeBar