Being LGBT+ at the Bar

120139_48

Findings from a survey of the LGBT+ Bar make for hard reading, say Steven Vaughan and Marc Mason who outline what we know and what needs to be done

As a gay barrister-turned-academic and a gay solicitor-turned-academic, we couldn’t help but notice that whilst there is a reasonably strong body of work on diversity and inclusion in various sections of the legal profession, there is relatively little on LGBT+ lawyers. 


In 2009, The Law Society published a report on the career experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual solicitors (in conjunction with the InterLaw Diversity Forum), but we were unable to find any work which spoke to the experiences of the LGBT+ Bar. This, we thought, was a gap worth filling. And so, a year ago, we decided to explore, empirically, how lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans individuals and others on the LGBT+ spectrum experience life as barristers or barristers to be.

In May 2016, we created and distributed an online survey aiming to gather data from the LGBT+ Bar in four thematic areas: (i) the experiences of LGBT+ members of the Bar in the workplace; (ii) if (and how and where) barristers were ‘out’ at work; (iii) the potential connections between sexuality and practice; and (iv) the purpose of LGBT+ networks and role models. This survey had wide coverage, with links being sent out by the Bar Standards Board, the Bar Council, each of the four Inns of Court, and the two LGBT+ Bar representative groups Freebar and BLAGG. We were grateful for their support given it is hard to think of how else we might have reached the underlying population.

Ninety-three practising barristers, six Queen’s Counsel, seven pupils, and 19 Bar Professional Training Course students completed the survey – 126 respondents in total. Of the 126, 28 were women and 98 men, Called to the Bar between 1968 and 2015. Thirteen sat part-time as judges and 26 were based outside London. Eighty-three per cent of the 126 were self-employed, 13% employed and 3% worked dual capacity. The vast majority (85.7%) were white. Our respondents worked in over 20 different fields, with significant groupings at the Chancery, criminal, family, public law and civil Bars. After the survey, we conducted 38 follow-up interviews towards the end of 2016: two with pupils; four with students; five with QCs; and 27 with barristers. The interviewees were all those who had come forward from the survey phase to say that they were willing to speak further with us.

Context of the world’s first research

With any empirical work, an important question to ask is: to what extent is the data captured reflective of the underlying population? Or, to put it another way, how confident can you be in your findings? In its December 2016 paper, Report on Diversity at the Bar, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) presented data showing that were 294 lesbian, gay or bisexual members of the Bar. On this measure, our 126 respondents (43% of 294) seems healthy. However, the problem comes because we do not know if the 294 figure in the BSB report is accurate or not. Only 31.8% of the Bar disclosed their sexuality to the BSB in the data collection exercise that led to the December 2016 report. And so it is perfectly possible that there are, in fact, many more LGB barristers out there than accounted for in the official statistics. If this is the case, then our 126 respondents become potentially less reflective of the underlying population. We are, however, heartened by two matters. The first is that our data shows such a spread of ages, practice areas, and geographical locations (and an equally broad spread of opinions and experiences) that we are confident we are reflecting a wide range of the LGBT+ Bar. Second, this is the world’s first research on these issues. As such, this work should act as the tipping-off point for detailed conversations on the LGBT+ Bar, not the final word.

Homophobia more prevalent at the Bar?

Some of the findings from the survey make for hard reading. When we launched the results in September 2017, we had some push back that we must be ‘pleased’ with what we found, that our results made for good headlines in the legal press. This was hard to hear. Let us, for the avoidance of doubt, say that we would much rather that we had not found that just over half of our respondents had experienced some form of discrimination at work or in their professional studies on account of their sexuality. That we would have been much happier had we found that far fewer than a third of LGBT+ barristers, pupils and BPTC students had been subject to bullying or harassment because of the gender of the people that they were attracted to. What worries us most is that these numbers are greater than those in the general population, where Stonewall research shows that one in five LGB employees have experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation in the last five years. Equally, only 16.9% of the solicitors taking part in The Law Society research referenced above had direct experience of sexuality-linked discrimination. The Bar then appears to be performing worse than the solicitors’ profession and indeed worse than workplaces generally on these measures.

When we explored homophobia, bullying and harassment in the interviews we were really struck by three matters. The first was how many barristers played down or made light of their own homophobic experiences. The second was that, despite being fearless advocates in the pursuit of their client’s interests, many barristers had failed to step forward and defend their own rights and to speak up in the face of homophobia. The third matter was the levelling of criticism at the Inns (for not doing enough to signal their support for LGBT+ members of the Bar) compared with our interviewees’ views on the BSB or the Bar Council. This criticism was particularly notable at both the most senior (QCs) and most junior levels (pupils). What was less clear was why this criticism was primarily directed at the Inns. One possibility might be that our respondents expected more of the Inns than they did of their regulator and representative body.

Professional positives

There were, at the same time, many positives from our research. Over half of our LGB barrister respondents felt that there was some connection between their work and their sexuality. When we discussed this in interviews, this was linked to ideas about barristers bringing the whole of themselves to work, and making real connection with clients in order to get the best results for them. After all, so much of being a barrister is about getting vital information from a client, or helping them perform at their best, and some of our respondents felt that to do this they needed to be honest and authentic about who they were. In fact, some barristers felt that being LGBT+ had given them certain strengths that they could bring to work; particularly an ability to relate to clients with a degree of empathy, liberalism or understanding of what it is like to be treated differently. Half of our survey participants agreed or strongly agreed that their sexuality had some connection with their professional lives. A handful (15%) felt their sexuality had influenced their choice of practice area, although double that number thought that their choice of chambers had been influenced by their sexuality. Our survey data shows that the vast majority (over 80% in each case) were out with all or most of their family, friends, and other barristers in their chambers. However, just under half were out with all or most of their instructing solicitors and only a quarter were out with all or most of their lay clients.

Our hope is that our research is used constructively by chambers, the BSB, Bar Council and the Inns. The results make for hard reading, but we should not shy away from casting a light onto practices that make us feel uncomfortable. What we should do is think about the ways in which we can work together to improve the lot of members of the LGBT+ Bar, and in doing so open the Bar up to the widest pool of talented applicants, and allow all of its members equal opportunity to flourish and contribute to its life and reputation.

Contributors Dr Steven Vaughan, University College London, and Marc Mason, University of Westminster, are the authors of Sexuality at the Bar: An Empirical Exploration into the Experiences of LGBT+ Barristers in England & Wales.

FREEBAR forum & ‘visible diversity’ project

Freebar is a collaboration by individuals at the Bar, created in response to increased awareness that we are behind other professions on issues of LBGT+ diversity and visibility. It is a forum aiming to create a visibly inclusive culture and to recognise and celebrate our LBGT+ role models and allies.

Freebar launched in 2016 in London and Birmingham, and has been active across a number of industry events. Recent highlights include an address at the annual conference of the Institute of Barristers Clerks, and an interactive discussion, held in association with Stonewall, to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

We also recently hosted a ‘Best Practice’ panel event that was well-attended by chambers: discussion focused on the difference having an inclusive organisation can make; common mistakes; and what best practice looks like. As follow-up, Freebar is producing a toolkit to assist chambers, and more projects are in the pipeline, including development of our website and an interview/photography project that will celebrate visible LBGT+ diversity at and around the Bar, aimed at tackling some of the very concerns the recent research has highlighted.

Supporters include chambers staff, barristers, solicitors, law students, Inn staff, court staff and members of the judiciary. For general queries, please email info@freebar.co.uk, and if you’re interested in being a visible role model as part of our ‘visible diversity’ project, please email Susanna Rickard, at srickard@serjeantsinn.com

Contributor Susanna Rickard is a barrister at Serjeants’ Inn, and a contributor to Freebar

Category: 
Tags: 
Issue: 
Author details: 
Dr Steven Vaughan

Steven is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Laws at University College London. He spent nine years in practice (first at Freshfields, then at Latham & Waktins) before moving into academia. Steven’s research interests lie in the regulation and governance of two fields: lawyers; and environmental law.

Marc Mason

Marc is a senior lecturer at Westminster Law School, University of Westminster where he is a member of the Centre on the Legal Profession. He previously practiced as a barrister specialising in child protection and family law. His research focuses on the legal profession with a particular focus on the Bar.