Caitlin Alexander, Trainee Solicitor
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
My name is Caitlin Alexander. I'm currently a trainee solicitor in Scotland. I graduated with my LL.B. from the University of Glasgow in 2018 and then got my Diploma in Professional Legal Practice in 2019. I've always been really interested in human rights so I'm currently working mostly in immigration law. It's very interesting in the sense that it intersects with a lot of other kinds of realms, for example gender-based violence and LGBTQ+ rights. I started in December and so have not been doing it for too long. Before that, I was working with CAB to assist vulnerable people to claim their rights after Brexit.
That sounds really interesting. In your experience, what is like being out in the legal profession?
For me, it's been very empowering and very freeing. I think being in the closet at work can be really time consuming and it makes me unproductive and ineffective. I spent half of my time doing work and the other half of time thinking about how to make conversation with my colleagues, responding to questions which they asked me, without outing myself. Like if somebody asked what I did at the weekend, I would spend so much time worrying about what I should say. Do I say I spent time with my partner? Do I say girlfriend? Or do I just avoid it? Do I lie? So, I guess then I was not really effective at work and now I guess I've become a lot more open.
It's great to be LGBTQ+ in the immigration sector. There are a lot of people fleeing persecution based on being LGBTQ+. I know I don't know exactly what they're going through and I can’t imagine the kinds of persecution that they face but I think having some sort of experience of LGBTQ+ issues can give you a lot more empathy. And empathy is one of those things that’s like one of the criteria that you're (obviously) supposed to meet if you want to be a human rights or social justice lawyer. It's a lot easier to have that if you have experienced some sort of discrimination or hardship yourself to some extent.
Would you say your particular area of law is quite open to being LGBTQ+ compared to some of the other areas of law?
Absolutely, I’d say so. You're dealing with people from minority backgrounds so, generally, the people that are working in that sector are likely to be a lot more open-minded. There's definitely a lot more scope for it. Whereas, perhaps in something like the corporate sector, where often many partners are white, straight and male, it may be different, more archaic perhaps.
Would you say that Immigration is quite a diverse and open area of law for all minority groups? Also, would you say being LGBTQ+ was one of the factors why you picked immigration? or is it just something you're interested in?
I think so. In general, it's a lot harder to tell if someone is LGBTQ+ than it is as to tell their gender or ethnicity but there is definitely a lot of diversity in my sector. I would say that most people in this sector are probably female and there are a lot of ethnic minorities in my sector as well. I guess those, like myself, who come from minority groups are more likely to want to help and work with minority groups as well.
Yes, it was a massive factor. I think I can see kind of like how easy we have it in this country compared to a lot of people and I really wanted to help those who have fewer rights than us. It's not the only area of my job but helping asylum seekers flee persecution based on their sexuality can be particularly rewarding. When it's successful, when the Home Office grant status, it’s just one of the most amazing things and makes it so worth it. There’s like a personal connection to it as well. Obviously, it's a very emotionally draining job because of the things you hear about but when it's successful, it really just makes it all worth it.
I remember, a few months ago, I had these clients. It was a woman and her girlfriend who were fleeing because they were lesbians. And I remember taking a statement from them and asking them “what is it like to be gay here compared to what it was like in your home country? And they both just started crying with happiness. I will never forget that moment. Like, it's so hard to be professional in these situations and sometimes I almost feel like crying too. These two women were eventually granted refugee status and it really hit home about how progressive we are here compared to various other countries. It made me more determined to help people in those situations.
Were you ever advised not to disclose your sexuality or gender identity on an application form? Or were you ever afraid to?
I was never advised not to. I'm mean I'm only 23 and like, I'm from a generation where it's a lot more acceptable to be LGBTQ+. So, no, I was never advised not to. I was definitely scared to but that's more my own problem rather than a problem with the legal profession. You fill out an equality monitoring form that they keep separate from the people who are actually sifting through applications and the people who are actually interviewing so, often, they will never know unless you bring that up. But I actually tend to write it in the body of my application forms now because I see it as more of an advantage. As I said before about empathy, it is good to have that as an example, like I can say I have lived experience of being LGBTQ+ and this is important for my area of work.
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 or clients?
Oh god yes, all the time. I have done so many different things through volunteer work and it would take me months and months to work up the courage to say anything about my sexuality. I mean, not to make a big statement about it but simply to answer a question truthfully about, for example, what my plans were for afterwards or for the weekend. And I was scared about how people were going to react. But I think it got to the point where like my pride in who I am outweighed my anxiety, I just kind of like shut it off. I think the worst that ever happens is, as I have a kind of “straight-passing privilege” in the sense that people do not think that I look like the “stereotypical” lesbian, I often get people being surprised that I am and being like “oh that's weird” or “I would not have expected that from you”. But I've never really faced more obvious discrimination, just the subtle things like that.
So, I do not think I have ever been discriminated against or anything like that. But that's not the only difficultly because there is also often the mental health aspect that comes with being different which can set you back a little as well.
Do you think the legal profession is doing enough to ensure support for diversity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ employees? If not, what more could be done?
I mean up here in Scotland, we have The Glass Network. They're doing great work with the Law Society of Scotland to promote equality and diversity in law firms. And they kind of promote the idea that equality and diversity should be part of the firm's CSR and make a kind of “business case” for incorporating equality and diversity in order to appeal to law firms.
In terms of what needs to be done, I think we need more role models. As the saying goes, you can't be when you can't see. This really resonates with me because throughout my university studies I didn't know of any LGBTQ+ already in the profession. And, even now, I don't know many at all. It got to the point where I was like “well I guess I’ll just have to be that person myself”. Recently, though, the President of the Law Society of Scotland is now an out lesbian which is amazing to see. It is definitely a massive step for the legal profession in Scotland.
Many of the lawyers I have spoken to already tell me how useful a diversity network is in their law firm or chambers. Do you have a similar network at your firm?
I work for very small law firm. There is only one solicitor, there's an interpreter and then there's me. So, I don't really feel like there needs to be anything formal in place like that. My boss is open to anyone really. He didn't care about me being LGBT and obviously like the sector we work in as well you’re exposed to a lot of LGBT people.
Do you have any advice for aspiring LGBTQ+ lawyers?
1. I think the best piece of advice is just to be visible (if you feel it’s safe to do so). As I said, it's harder to see sexuality than like gender and anything else, so it means that you have to have an even louder voice, in a sense, just to be seen, never mind to be accepted. Just being out in itself is already enough of a political statement. And that's also enough to make a change. For example, if younger people see that there are LGBT people in the profession, they will perhaps see themselves in that and feel like they can reach there too.
2. To be able to take your own experiences, negative experiences especially, as a driver for change. So, if you've been treated unfairly or been discriminated against, to kind of use that to speak up to make a change. And I know not all aspiring lawyers want to be social justice lawyers but there are so many other things that you can do. So even if you're in commercial law, there is so much CSR or pro bono work that you can do to make some kind of a positive difference.