Helen Randall, Partner at Trowers & Hamlins
Tell us about yourself and what you do!
I’m Helen Randall, a senior partner at Trowers & Hamlins and I specialise in Public Sector Commercial law. I’ve been at Trowers for over 16 years and I’m the champion for the firm’s diversity, equality, and inclusion initiative ‘Trowers Includes’. This involves a number of networks within the firm including the LGBTQ+ and Allies' network, Gender, Work, Family network and many others.
In my spare time, I’m the chair of the specialist LGBTQ+ homelessness charity Stonewall Housing. This charity helps find and provide accommodation to homeless LGBTQ+ people of all ages, races, ethnicities and religions, it’s very inclusive!
Stonewall Housing sounds like a wonderful initiative! What’s it like being ‘out’ in the legal profession?
It depends on what your colleagues are like and where you work. I’m ‘out’ and proud at work and have been since I joined Trowers and I actually came ‘out’ at work 3 years after I qualified. I worked in-house for the London Borough of Camden and the reason I felt like I could do so is because it was a lovely, inclusive, diverse environment with other people who were ‘out’ and proud. Not just in terms of sexual orientation, it was also diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, religion, belief and socio-economic backgrounds. It felt genuinely inclusive.
When I first started working, which was many years ago now, I was a paralegal. I then trained and qualified in a big magic circle firm and I didn’t feel I could come ‘out’. I was ‘out’ to one friend, but not my boss and other colleagues, certainly not to my clients. It would have been very scary to come out because in those days you could have lost your job! There was no law protecting you. Ironically, I worked with someone for four years, and it was only after we both left that we found out each other were gay!
Now, I’m ‘out’ at work and it’s just regarded as part of me. It makes me work more confidently to be ‘out’ and proud at work because I can be much more natural and holistic about my life and the way I talk about myself. What has also been really lovely and incredibly flattering is that younger lawyers at Trowers have felt that they can come ‘out’ at work because I and other partners are ‘out’ and proud. It feels safe for them to come ‘out’, and if anything, it is celebrated. It’s a really humbling thing.
I definitely don’t get everything right, but when you get more senior in a firm you have to recognise some people will regard you as a role model even if you don't feel like one yourself so you have to be more authentic. You’re never going to get complete trust from your colleagues or clients if they sense you are holding back parts of yourself.
It’s important to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Before your current position were you ever advised to not to disclose your sexuality on your application form, or were you ever afraid to?
I didn’t disclose my sexuality on my application form for my training contract back in the 1980s and in a way, it meant I concealed part of myself. When I applied, I was doing pro bono work for a free LGBTQ legal advice line, and so I suppose you could say I held back. I’m sure that if I had consulted my mum and dad, they would have said ‘don’t put that down, it will make you look like a trouble maker or that you have a chip on your shoulder’.
What I would say is you can allude to it on your application form. Because first, you should bring your whole self to the workplace. Secondly, it might illustrate how you have done some pro bono activity or have been involved in something other than studying! But most importantly, if a firm is going to be homophobic, however desperate you are for a job, do not go and work for them! It will be miserable, and they don’t deserve your talent. I would also say that people should only come ‘out’ when they feel safe to and it’s perfectly acceptable to take as much time as you need. You may also decide that you never want to and there should be no obligation for anyone to ‘come out of the closet’ if they don’t want to. It is a very personal thing. It will depend on you, your culture, your family, your background and it might even depend on your mental health status, all sorts of things. You shouldn’t feel compelled to come ‘out’ but remember, firms have an obligation to abide by the SRA code of non-discrimination, which includes not discriminating on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity.
I agree, everybody’s journey is different and should be treated as such, were you ever anxious to come ‘out’ in the work place, and do you feel anxious to come ‘out’ to new people you work with, or new clients?
Yes of course! I guess the first 7 years of my legal career I was anxious about coming out because I was scared of getting an adverse reaction from colleagues. A real worry was that the partners would think I was a ‘weirdo’ or that I was ‘other’ and this would impede my career progress. I also worried that people would gossip about me. Now I have come out, and the social climate is different, I don’t worry about those things anymore.
It has to be said that coming ‘out’ is something that happens all the time in a heteronormative world. If you’re heterosexual, you don’t have to worry about coming ‘out’, heterosexuality is assumed and everything else is seen as a variation of it. It is different if you’re lesbian or gay and especially if you’re bi or trans. There are times when I might have had a long relationship with a client and we’ve never talked about each other’s personal lives ever. We’ve talked about business and legal issues and that’s it. So sometimes it has been difficult because a client has thought they know me very well, and they say something like: ‘Can you tell me what your husband does again?’ Then I say, ‘well actually my wife is a photographer’. The client will often then react by apologising and that they shouldn’t have assumed, and then I feel guilty for somehow making that person feel embarrassed. I also don’t want to have a setback our relationship by doing so. As a lawyer you never want your client to feel uncomfortable with you and that has sometimes felt like a dilemma for me. Generally, how I get around it is if you use wife early in the conversation it kind of does the coming ‘out’ job for you. But this doesn’t solve the issue if you are bi or trans.
I think it’s much harder to come ‘out’ if you’re bi or trans and we need to recognise and acknowledge that. As a partner, as business owners, we need to make it more comfortable for people to come ‘out’ at work. At Trowers we currently do not have anyone who outwardly identifies as trans, but statistically we must have colleagues who identify as trans. We have a firm of over 1000 people, and if you look at the proportion of society who are trans, it just must be the case. If they haven’t come ‘out’ because it’s their personal choice not to, that’s absolutely fine and up to them. But I don’t want them to stay ‘closeted’ because they feel it isn’t safe to, or because they won’t be accepted, or because they’ll receive micro-aggressions, or because it would hinder their career progress. The occurrence of these things would be absolutely unacceptable to me.
As head of diversity, I am trying to make the firm a safe environment so that if someone wanted to come out as trans, they could do. We do this by having some external speakers come in such as Rachel Reese from ‘Global Butterflies’. We’ve had events including people who are ‘out’ and proud trans people. When we do things for Pride, we feature famous trans role models or even people who are in other law firms who are out as trans. We always celebrate the ‘T’ in anything ‘LGBTQ+’. The aim is to have a ready-made comfortable space if anyone wants to be ‘out’. We have a ‘transition at work’ policy, which we have recently revised, and we hope that what we are doing is adequate for people to feel comfortable should they want to express themselves.
It’s inspiring to see a firm put so much effort into making people feel safe; have you experienced any difficulties due to your sexuality and how have you over-come them?
Yes, but only early on when I wasn’t ‘out’ at work and that was three decades ago now! Even then, I didn’t hear homophobic remarks where I worked, I just didn’t feel brave enough to come ‘out’ because it felt like a very heteronormative environment. So no, I haven’t experienced any difficulties or discrimination because of my sexual orientation. What I have experienced, mainly when I have been on a transaction with counter-parties (not the lawyers), is misogynistic micro-aggressions. Those are difficult because you can’t pin them down as being misogynistic. You just suspect that this person doesn’t like the fact that there is a woman on the other side of the transaction and is trying to use that as a negotiation lever. I have to say, whenever this happens, I have been really assertive, and I’ve squashed it. Sometimes I’ve called it out and when I’ve seen other women in my team bullied, on one occasion by a client and on another occasion by a counter party, I’ve called it out. I’ve said that it’s not acceptable and you can’t do that. That is what a partner should do. No way should you expect someone who is more junior in the team to deal with that themselves. You should take on the job as a leader because you are the one who has the power to challenge it, but I have to say I have had a lucky time on the whole.
Do you think the legal profession is doing enough to ensure diversity and inclusion of LGBTQ+ employees? If not, what more could be done?
To be honest I think the legal profession is a lot better than many other industries. When you look at LGBTQ+ awards like the ‘Pink News Awards’ or the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, quite a lot of the organisations who win these awards are law firms. Lawyers tend to be at the more progressive ends of industry sectors. For example, if you compare law to construction, manufacturing, or real estate it’s pretty good. What is good is that the various branches of the legal progression have banded together for Legal Pride. There are usually a whole series of events going on around the country. I would say, and I suppose I’m biased, that the solicitor’s profession and CILEX are further ahead than the Bar. They are making efforts, but I get the impression it is a more modern and progressive atmosphere in law firms.
What more can be done? Well a big thing for firms is increasing diversity on all fronts. Not just LGBTQ+ diversity. BLM has really thrown things into sharp relief, we as a law firm always hope we’re promoting equality, diversity, and inclusivity but we are looking more forensically now at what active steps we can take to ensure that black colleagues have the best possible opportunities of progression within their career. Without a doubt if you look at the legal profession it looks quite white. Generally black people are pretty underrepresented in the legal profession.
I agree completely, I read that out of all of the magic circle law firms, 3-5 out of 800 partners are black.
Well, that is shocking. It’s awful! The head of our Birmingham office is black, and she and I are having conversations about how we can do better as a firm. We are very proud that she is the head of our office because she is excellent at her job. We promote people on merit, we don’t do positive discrimination. I have had the privilege of mentoring a couple of our partners who are ‘BAME’. But the thing that strikes me, just from a business viewpoint, is we have some really great talent and there are definitely black colleagues whom we should get ready for promotion. This might mean looking at what we could do to build their confidence if that is what is needed or making them feel more supported. If people have had a journey through life where they have had to battle discrimination on a daily basis, it’s not good for your self-esteem. You might be confident or assertive, but you have still had a more difficult time than someone who has enjoyed privilege. The aim in a law firm is to look out for good talent and nurture it.
Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring LGBTQ+ lawyers?
First, do your research about the places you’re applying to, and do lots of it! Don’t just limit it to their website. If they mention clients, look into them. And Look at the guides. Not just the student guides but the Chambers Legal Directory, the Legal 500. This applies if you’re LGBTQ+ or not. By doing this you’ll find out what their diversity policies are, and it’s also fine to ask them about their policies.
Secondly, join as many networks as you can and be active in them. So, join Queer Lawyers of Tomorrow. Go on The Law Society LGBTQ+ lawyers division LinkedIn page and join. Why do this? Because it is networking! You get to see what firms are represented in those groups and which ones are active in those groups. You might get to know people who you can ask questions to and get more of a feel for the firm.
Lastly, don’t feel you have to come ‘out’ but also don’t feel like you have to ‘stay in the closet’. You are the best person to gauge what you are comfortable with, so do that. If you have something that is LGBTQ+ on your application, don’t feel worried about putting it on. But just think about how that relates to a career in law.