David Isaac, Partner at Pinsent Masons
So could you start to tell us about yourself, how you identify and what you do?
I'm David Isaac, and I'm a partner at Pinsent Masons. I'm just coming to the end of my time at there, so I’m at an interesting point in my career. I identify as a gay man, and I’m a former Chair of Stonewall: I was lucky enough to be chair for a period of nearly ten years when the organisation successfully lobbied to deliver legal equality for LGB people. Most recently, I was Chair of the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission. Later this year, I take on the role of Provost of Worcester College, Oxford.
That's exciting. That's a real change of career.
Yes, it’s a big move outside the law, but it builds on a lot of the work I’ve done to date. I have always had a commitment to education and its power to transform lives because that’s exactly what happened to me. I come from a working-class background, and education was transformative in allowing me to go to university and to become a lawyer. My human rights and equality work has demonstrated the power of the law to deliver specific changes, but to drive wider changes in society social mobility and widening participation are key. One of the reasons I'm going to Oxford is to work on that: we need to ensure that the best potential talent is educated at Oxford, irrespective of background.
In your experience, what is it like being out as a solicitor, particularly at start of your career but also now?
When I was a trainee in the early 1980s very few people were out at work:in fact, nobody was out in my law firm. There were other gay people in the profession, out to each other in small networks, but usually as a closely kept secret. It was a period of overt discrimination and hostility, so people didn’t feel able to come out - especially in a conservative profession like the law. They were very scared that their careers would be damaged or they would be dismissed. It may be hard to believe now, but it was entirely lawful to discriminate against LGBT people. One of the most important reasons I came out was because of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. At that time, lots of my friends were getting sick. That was the very personal side, but as a lawyer, I felt that I had to do something to deal with the inadequate legal protections that existed. This is all topical now, because “It’s a Sin” has started a conversation about gay life in the 80s and the inadequate responses for those with HIV and AIDS. I ended up chairing an HIV charity, coming out at work, and beginning my human rights work. It was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t always easy and there were times when I too was scared about the impact of my HIV work on my career.
Fast forward to now: I think it's much easier to be out at work. Pinsent Masons has led on LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace. We actively advertise for trainees and staff who want to work in an inclusive environment and, as a result, I think that it's easier for LGBT+ people to feel supported. People join us because they want to work in an environment where they know they can be themselves. But I would say that Pinsents is not necessarily representative of all law firms: we were pioneering in this field, but it’s not so easy outside metropolitan areas or in smaller firms, and for some people who work at the bar.
It’s easy to believe that life isn't difficult for people who identify differently, but that’s not always the case: it’s still hard for trans colleagues, for example. And of course, some people don’t want to be out at work - that’s fine too. But overall, the climate is definitely very different from when I started out.
Definitely, I think that's quite interesting because a lot of the people who read the interviews are much like me. There's never been a time, at least that we remember where discrimination has been lawful.
Given the progress that we have made in such a short time, it’s hard to think of a world when there was such blatant discrimination against a group of people. Not just in the workplace, but in relation to buying houses or passing on tenancies; being able to have our relationships recognised; being able to adopt children: all those things were denied to us. Section 28 was a call to arms, though in hindsight we never dreamt that we’d achieve quite so much quite so quickly. At Stonewall I was very involved in lobbying to change the law and end legal discrimination. But deeper cultural change takes a lot longer. I do think that in some contexts there are still residual prejudices: sadly, some faith institutions are examples of that.
You mentioned about coming out in the midst of the AIDS pandemic. What was that like as a trainee and an associate?
It was scary. One the one hand, I was friendly with people who were either sick or dying, and saw the awful tragedy of that. Yet if you came out and talked about that, people would automatically assume you were HIV-positive, and their fear and anxiety translated itself into real prejudice. People didn't understand how HIV was transmitted, and there was a lot of fear and prejudice - and to honest, a lot of shame and self-loathing on the part of many gay men.
So, it wasn’t an easy time or an easy environment to come out in. Some people felt paralysed and scared, and didn't share the details of their sexuality. Others decided that because they were losing their friends they were going to respond by fighting. I was part of that second group. I got involved in an HIV organisation and helped to look after people who were sick and get them medical, legal and other support. Working on these issues allowed me to use my legal skills, and very shortly after stepping down as Chair of Oxaids I was approached to join the Stonewall board.
HIV and then Section 28 were two key threats in our history that made it important to act. One of my main reflections from that period is how powerful a tool the law can be. Legal redress for people with HIV/ Aids resulted from the work of many dedicated lawyers and lobbyists, and the same was true of Stonewall. Those successes make me optimistic about how the law can change things. In a relatively short time, a combination of legal challenges and securing parliamentary support led to full legal equality. I’m proud of what we all achieved delivering change. Every time I see two queer people holding hands, I pinch myself; it was part of my dream that people should be able to do that, and now it’s possible and no-one stares any longer!
That said, it’s important to remember that this change is all quite recent, and we cannot be too complacent that the job is finished. We see that very clearly in the need to continue the fight for LGBT+ rights internationally, across the world.
Being involved with very prominently LGBTQ organisations like Stonewall, does it make disclosing your sexuality an issue, since it's likely to be presumed? How does that impact your relationships with your colleagues, but also your clients?
Because I was one of an initially small group of people in the legal sector who were actively involved in LGBT+ rights, I became quite open about my sexuality in the workplace. However, that didn't mean that I didn’t have to come out to colleagues and clients all the time: in my experience, LGBT+ people are always coming out, because in the traditional world of law the default is always that you’re straight. Particularly as you get older, clients often assume you are married to a partner of the opposite sex, with kids.
It’s also important to acknowledge that some people can't make a choice about coming out because they don’t conform to conventional gender stereotypes – presumptions are made, and therefore they can feel more exposed. Overall, though, the good news is that things are much easier now, and people can be open if they choose to be. Not having to conceal your private life or what you did at the weekend benefits us, our colleagues and employers.
Going back to a point you'd made earlier about your role at Stonewall. Was that something you were ever advised not to do, just not talk about that part of your life?
No, never; if I had been, I wouldn't have listened. I was always very proud of what I was doing, and people could see the progress that we were making and were very encouraging. In fact, I always made a virtue of my Stonewall work and this led to Pinsent Masons becoming the first law firm to get involved in the Stonewall Diversity Champion programme. This was a hugely supportive act - not just to support LGBT+ colleagues, but to send a message to the whole legal community about the sort of firm we wanted to be.
Throughout the course of your career, has your sexuality ever been a cause of the difficulty, and if so, how do you overcome it?
It hasn't really been a cause of real difficulty, apart from the casual prejudice of people not wanting to share mugs with me at work during the HIV-Aids pandemic. Those people who didn't mean me any harm; they were just scared: fear and misunderstanding drive a lot of prejudice. I am lucky that I haven’t faced too many barriers. In fact, I've received a lot of support: once you're brave enough to talk to people about who you truly are, how you live, and to personalise it for them, it has a positive effect. Through this, our relationships have become normalised and there is greater acceptance of how we live. Most people now know somebody - or are related to somebody - who's LGBT+, perhaps in a civil partnership ora gay marriage. I would encourage people to be open, though ultimately of course this is a personal choice.
So slightly, changing tack, and this is a question we've been asking people from across different parts of the legal profession is about diversity within the LGBTQ community. What are your thoughts on diversity within the LGBTQ community and representation of that diversity? What do you think is the future for LGBTQIA inclusion within the legal profession, the solicitor profession specifically.
Intersectionality is something that the legal profession needs to continue to work on - whether it's in relation to race, or social mobility. In fact, I had a call this morning with our social mobility group at Pinsent Masons and we've are keen to make progress on this front.
There absolutely needs to be a better understanding of different parts of the gay community, particularly in respect of lesbians, trans people, people of colour and disabled gay people. Whilst I think there's a lot that unites us, each group faces very distinct challenges. It’s important to build support and mutual understanding.
Real progress has been made, but there is still more to be done. Our biggest challenge is to ensure that we integrate the progress that we’ve made into all levels of the profession, with strong role models in senior positions and also amongst our non-legal staff. I worry that fatigue and complacency will kick in. I have heard people say: “Haven’t we done the gay stuff enough? Do we still need to talk about these things?” Yes, we have made progress; but if we stop talking about the diverse talents of diverse people - especially LGBT+ people - I fear that we may become invisible again.
Finally what are three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQIA+ legal professionals- solicitors or otherwise.
If you're lucky enough to be in a firm which has an LGBT+ network group, get involved in it. It’s a great way of getting support from other gay colleagues and allies - but it’s also a great way to become visible to senior people in your firm. You’ll build relationships with people that you probably wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet.
The second thing is that law firms these days “sell” or “showcase” their diversity credentials to their clients. It’s increasingly an important factor in winning work. LGBTQ+ lawyers make a huge contribution to the diversity of their firms and I’d encourage them to feel more confident about that. Don’t apologise for who you are. You are an integral part of your firm and its diversity record, so celebrate your contribution!
And finally, I’d encourage colleagues to celebrate the unique qualities and skills that being LGBT + gives us. I don't want to stereotype, but I do think that being gay can give us special insights into human nature, make us particularly emotionally aware. I found that it made me really good at working with clients, presenting to them and winning work. So, don't play down the “gay” bit of yourself; it’s actually a real attribute.