Alex Cisneros, Barrister at Outer Temple Chambers
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I'm Alex, I'm a barrister at Outer Temple chambers. I specialise in public law, and private client matters. Private client work is what it says on the tin, it's private work for private clients. Most of my work involves mental health and mental capacity work. Finally, I'm also undertaking a PhD at the moment in mental capacity law.
In your experience, what is it like being out in the legal profession?
When I was preparing for this, I thought it is important to say is that I recognise that my experience isn't the same as a lot of other people's. I'm lucky enough to have not actually faced any overt prejudice at work.
The only times I actually feel like I modulate my behavior is around clients or new solicitors. I find myself sort of clumsily referring to my male partner with neutral pronouns until I've spoken to that person a little bit and judged as to whether they're likely to have an adverse reaction to finding out that I'm gay. I think that's something everyone who identifies as LGBTQIA+ experiences at some point, you just have modulation of your behavior around new people, without being able to be your authentic self immediately.
Part of my work as a public law barrister involves representing extremely vulnerable people. Set against the experience of many of my clients, it seems a bit silly to be worrying about talking about husband to someone. But I think it is brave to be open about who you are with strangers, whether it’s LGBT+ or otherwise.
I sort of subconsciously pause to review someone’s reaction when I mention my husband before I go on to talk about things. And I think it's unfortunate that we're still at that place. But for me, as I said, I haven't really faced any prejudice. It's really my internal issues and how I approach others.
And were you ever advise not to display your sexuality or gender identity on an application form or were you ever afraid to?
I think the second part of that question is probably true. I was never advised not to disclose my sexual orientation on an application form. But I was told to tone down the weight I put on what the advisor deemed to be “activism”. Albeit that's not telling me to take off any reference to my sexual identity, it is somewhat modulating how you represent yourself to Chambers. I was a little confused as to why “activism” was deemed to be problematic.
Prior to the bar, I co-founded a network of Commonwealth LGBT charities. And, for me, I couldn’t see any problem with that on an application to become a barrister. The Bar is inherently about activism, you're advocating on behalf of someone. That's exactly what activism is, save that you replace ‘someone’ with a cause. I left it in because my philosophy was that if I somehow snuck my way into a Chambers, on the basis of, you know, leaving out ‘activism’ from my CV, I’d to be found out anyway.
It was probably pretty arrogant of me, but I wanted part of my authentic self to be in the application forms. If the Chambers chose me, it would be on the basis of the person I actually was rather than the person they assumed I was.
I know of people that have had some similar experiences even today.
I’ve been reading application forms for my chambers this year and there is so much competition that I understand that applicants don't want anything to count against them. So, if you perceive something to be an immediate barrier in the way, of course you can take it out of your application form.
All I would say is in no way should your sexual orientation or gender identity, or the work you've done in advocating for rights on that basis, be seen as some sort of barrier. If anything, advocacy, in favor of rights for the LGBTQIA+ community should be seen as an asset because it is advocating is exactly what we do as barristers.
You've sort of answered this question already, but you might have a bit more to say. Were you ever anxious to come out in the workplace? And do you ever feel anxious about coming out to new people in the workplace?
Everyone is going to hate me if I keep saying how lucky I was. But it’s true! I was particularly lucky during my pupillage because, in my old chambers, one of my supervisors was a guy called Chelvan. I was extremely lucky to have him as a supervisor and mentor because he was well regarded in chambers and encouraged an open-door policy and a safe space to allow me (and others) to feel supported and protected.
I had one bad experience during pupillage when a very senior member of chambers described me as ‘jazzy’ when giving formal feedback about me. To me ‘jazzy’ is sort of like ‘fun’ or ‘enthusiastic’ but it was not positive feedback. That really stuck with me and I found myself ‘toning down’ my enthusiasm in the first couple of years at the Bar. I actively lowered my voice and wore boring ties to court. I think that is problematic because, although I had this really supportive environment, one opinion from one member of chambers was enough to knock my confidence and make me change how I presented myself.
Because of this, I was anxious about coming out to everyone because of their perception of me. However, as I do the job more and more and meet more and more people, I'm lucky enough to feel quite confident in telling people about my husband.
It sometimes does just take that one person to knock back everything. what is your experience with judges like?
It's not really about ‘you’ with judges. I don't find myself modulating how I approach cases or advocacy (despite having been described as jazzy). Because, if you try to do that, it becomes very hard to maintain and you end up thinking about how your voice is affected, rather than the best point you can try and make. So, don’t try and change who you are because you perceive the tribunal to be more sympathetic to a certain type of person. That just wouldn’t work.
And have you experienced any difficulties in your career because of your sexuality and if so, how did you overcome them? I know you’ve talked about a few already
Yeah, I think the caveat to this, again, is my experience is going to be very different to other people. The main difficulty I perceived in my career was actually before coming to the bar and my perception of what the bar was like. While I was finishing up my degree and doing other stuff after university, I imagined that all barristers sit in wood-paneled rooms talking about the good old days before this equality and diversity stuff came along.
So, I wondered whether I would fit in. But, actually, coming to the bar and seeing that it's just filled with very, very smart people, regardless of background etc., has really changed my perception of the Bar. So, for me, it was the visuals of the bar that was the biggest difficulty.
Now and in general, do you think the legal profession is doing enough to ensure the support for diversity and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ employees? And if not, what more could be done?
Having said that my experience has been great, I think there is so much more that needs to be done because I recognise again that my experience isn't everyone's. There was a recent study from Steven Vaughan at UCL and Mark Mason, about Sexuality and the Bar, and it's quite sobering because they did Anonymous surveys and the vast majority of people express some sort of concern as to how their career has been affected by their sexuality. A lot of people said that they're not actually out with new people because of the worry about how they'll react. I recognise a lot of that.
In terms of what the bar needs to do to encourage better diversity is, as I said before, improve on the visuals of the bar because it's almost a circular argument. If you are perceived to not be diverse, you're unlikely to get the excellent candidates applying. So I think targeting that perception and combating the negative ideas about what the bar is a good start.
The other thing is encouraging initiatives like this one. Mentoring is a really good way of improving the confidence of young people. So, I had, as I said, Chelvan as a mentor, and him being an out man was hugely influential as to how I approached that issue in my practice. I think getting advice from more senior members of chambers or more senior members of the bar is quite a good idea.
Do you think that within the community, the G in LGBTQIA+ is a lot more privileged, than maybe the other parts of the community, are there more steps to go, especially with trans rights?
I probably can't talk to the experiences of other people, but yes. I think the G in LGBTQIA+ is perhaps given a little more prevalent. I don’t know why that is but it may just be my personal experience, being a ‘G’ myself. I think mentoring is a good thing however you identify because it gives people the confidence and allows people to know they're not alone in a profession.
And finally, what are three pieces of advice you'd give to aspiring LGBTQ+ legal professionals?
The first is, this sounds trite, but it is true, you have to stay true to yourself when applying to the Bar. And that doesn't mean that you have to come out on every application form. But it is important that you recognise that you'll be spending like five days a week for 40 years around people in Chambers. And so, there's really no point trying so hard to get into the bar, if you're not going to be comfortable with where you end up. It's so difficult and it's probably easy for me to say but feeling comfortable in a Chambers which is where you spend your life is, I would say, so important and therefore you need to come to the job being true to yourself and being yourself in applications.
The second point is that you should not be put off by assumptions about the bar. It might take you a little while to navigate but eventually you'll settle and find like-minded people. There are some amazing people doing incredible stuff at the Bar. So, the idea that it's a career for posh people just isn't true anymore. Once you get in, there is so much diversity and so many good thoughts and exciting work going on there. I'd say on that point, this is such an exciting moment to be joining the profession. There appears to be a desire to change things and I know that's difficult, but there is this genuine attempt to help.
The third and final piece of advice is more practical. If you are applying to the Bar and you're looking at Chambers that you think you'd like to join, I would say look at the most junior members of chambers and the profiles they have. We’re barristers, we like to boast about our experience so, you'll see what we've done. Look at the experience that they've had before the bar. You should look at the five most junior people and, basically, just copy them. That gives a good indication of the type of experience and the type of person that chambers will be looking for pupillage.
So yeah, that's practical advice and, hopefully, encouragement to be yourself because you're probably going to be in this career for life.