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The legal profession has markedly improved its record on supporting gay and lesbian staff, further underlining the law’s position as one of the most gay-friendly careers in the UK.

That positive view, at least, is held by senior partners at leading commercial firms, according to the latest Big Question survey, which found that 91% of respondents believed the profession had improved its record on supporting gay staff. That included 19% who said law firms had improved ‘a lot’ over the last five years and 36% who said the situation had improved ‘a fair amount’.

“We have had 100% support from the senior partner down, including the managing partner and the London managing partner. So many people are behind us,” said tax partner Stephen Shea (pictured), who is part of Clifford Chance’s (CC’s) new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) group.

The magic circle law firm is one of a growing band of leading commercial firms that have organised LGBT network groups, with Herbert Smith, Pinsent Masons, Simmons & Simmons and Allen & Overy (A&O) supporting similar initiatives. CC launched its LGBT network on 10 March.

Shea commented: “This was the moment the community [lesbian and gay] got respect and affirmation from the firm.”

Similarly, rival Herbert Smith has just celebrated the first anniversary of the launch of its LGBT network, with keynote speaker Sir Ian McKellen at the gala. “Networks will continue to grow and become a focal point for people to feel connected,” said Carolyn Lee (pictured below), head of diversity at Herbert Smith. She added: “Attitudes have changed in one sense but, like many issues, it never articulated support from the legal profession; it was not hostile, but no-one talked about it.”

The poll of more than 100 senior lawyers concluded that the law compared well to comparable professions such as banking and accountancy, with 43% of respondents believing that the profession did ‘well’ or ‘very well’ on such a benchmark. Only 9% thought that level compared badly with other professions.

However, Lee said she modelled the LGBT network at Herbert Smith after a group at an investment bank. “We are way behind JP Morgan – they have made real effort to support events,” said Michael Chissick, head of information technology and outsourcing at Field Fisher Waterhouse.

One lawyer with a magic circle firm, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “My firm has 160 partners in London and not one of them is an ‘out’ gay. To me this speaks volumes. It is more of a fear of prejudice than anything, because you are surrounded by Oxford and Cambridge-educated men you might be judged and so you become internalised.”

“I am not ‘out’ at work due to the level of back-chat within the partnership and the general presumption that the firm’s diversity is focused on ‘getting the numbers in/up’ rather than any real sense of diversity.”

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