Professor Steven Vaughan, UCL
So, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a professor of law and professional ethics at UCL and I have been an academic for 10 years. As an academic, I tend to research two main types of issues, half of my research is on environmental law, and the other half is on the legal profession and looking at diversity and inclusion. Before I became an academic, I was a solicitor, so I did my law degree, went to London and qualified at Freshfields, I qualified into the environment team at Freshfields and then I spent about 5 years at Latham and Watkins, a US law firm, again as an environmental lawyer. At Latham, I was co-chair of the firm's LGBT network in London.
What is it like being out in the legal profession, in your opinion?
I think generally it's been fine, and I know it's not the most positive term in the world to use and there have been a few pinpoints in my history, professionally, when it's been challenging or problematic to be out in the legal profession. Though generally it's been fine. It’s gotten easier over time and I think it’s been easier in some places than others. One of the things I’m interested in as an academic is what it means to be a professional and professionalism and personal identity, so the extent to which if you’re gay, lesbian, bi or whatever you are; how do you perform that identity, what does it mean to be a professional, how out can you be in terms of your sexual identity.
I remember a student came to me asking for advice and they said to me “how gay can I be at work?” And I said, it’s not really about thinking how gay can you be at work, but more about professionalism. So if you’re at Freshfields, you’re probably not walking down the corridors shouting “YASS QUEEN” or in a client meeting. That’s not about being gay, or being queer- it’s about being professional. So, it’s generally been fine for me being out. I’m very proud of who I am, I haven’t had any shame about who I am, it’s not necessarily been super positive, it’s rarely been negative.
When you were applying, were you ever advised to not disclose your sexuality or talk about it?
I just don’t remember it being ever relevant. I was applying for vac schemes and training contracts in and around the year 2000. I don’t remember actively thinking I should say something about my sexuality in the application form, and that was largely because I didn’t have a way of framing it in a way that was relevant. I wasn’t part of an LGBT+ group at university, I wasn’t active in it or chairing it, I wasn’t doing any LGBT+ volunteer work and so on. So if the question was, let’s say, ‘Why do you want to work at this large law firm and why are you interested in corporate finance work?’ then writing an answer that was like “As a gay man, I’m interested in derivates” …That just wouldn’t make any sense. I definitely didn’t put it on my forms, but not because it would hinder me but because I didn’t have a place or a space where it would be relevant. That's the same today, you know, so I don't think anyone should be worried about disclosing their sexuality on application forms for various jobs in the legal profession, but it goes back to that point about relevance. In what context are you talking about your sexuality? So is it that, you know, think about the work you're doing here in this interview Rhea. Is it, you know you saying ‘Away from my studies, I'm committed to x, y, and z. And as an example of this, I've been working with Queer Lawyers Of Tomorrow, as an X person’. That's a relevant, interesting example that a firm might be able to match against some of the competencies that it's looking for, but saying ‘As a gay man I’m interested in derivatives…’ that just doesn't work. It’s about how you out yourself in application forms and how relevant your sexuality is to the application. The flip side of that, I think, is that we are who we are. Straight people, heteronormative people, they get have pictures of their wives and children on their desks in a very sort of normalizing way. It would never occur to them to think not to have those photo albums, or say “Oh, my wife and I did X, Y and Z at the weekend”. So as I become older, I'm becoming a bit more political when it comes to being queer. So, despite what I’ve just said about application forms, when I'm teaching environmental law, or ethics, or climate change, I often say, “As a gay man, blah blah blah…”, and I know that my sexuality is not relevant to climate change or to whatever else it might be. But I'm just being more vocal about it now. And I'm doing it from a position of privilege. I'm a professor now, I have nowhere else to go in terms of hierarchy or promotion. It's easy for me now to wave that flag. And I can imagine some younger people, people who are applying for other types of jobs, you know, asking themselves ‘Do I disclose? How do I disclose? You know, is this the right thing to be doing?’
Yeah, I get that. So, seniority is kind of providing a safety blanket, in that if you're out yourself, nothing adverse is going to happen.
Yeah, and yeah, like most people, it’s giving less of a shit as I get older. You know, I was moving stuff around in my study, and I found photo albums from university 20 years ago. And I remember being the person who just really cared much more back then about what people thought of him. And I'm just much less bothered about that now. And it's, you know, easy to say 20 years on after my law degree. But I think I think it's a seniority point and an age point as well.
So you kind of touched on this but when you were working at Freshfield and Latham, and also when you’re working at UCL now, were you ever anxious to come out in the workplace or feeling anxious coming out to people or certain clients?
I don’t know if anxiety is the right word. I was certainly reflective of it. I remember when I was at university in my second year on one vacation scheme, I was sat with a male partner and I
walked into work in one pair of shoes and I was playing netball for the firm alongside that so I had my netball trainers. He made a joke about Imelda Marcos and I just had this feeling that he was gay, and I didn't know how it came up in conversation, but anyway, eventually we told each other we were gay and I said, “Do you know the people in the firm know that you're gay?” And he said, “No, I just think my private life is private”. And he encouraged me not to be too vocal about coming out at work, on this vacation scheme. It wasn't that he was convinced there would be a negative reaction or that people would react poorly. But he was just worried about the risks. And he was saying to me, “Don't let that be the thing that people focus on. Let them get to know the quality of your work or who you are as a new potential trainees solicitor. Don’t let them just label you as “the gay guy”.”
So after he said that, you know, kind of I didn’t listen to him. Despite being the kind of person who cared about what people thought of him, I was also the arrogant young man in the room. There was an incident where I made a stupid drunken mistake and ended up kissing one of the other vacation schemers - a guy- for a bet in front of a gang of other associates and partners. I mean, it was a stupid thing to do because it wasn't professional. It wasn't okay to get that drunk on a vac scheme, whether it was a guy or anybody else. The next day, one of the associates said to me, “We don't want people like you applying here” and then just floored me. I just thought, “Oh, my God, I was drunk and I kissed this guy, I won the bet, but have I ruined my kind of future?” And the associate wasn't saying “people like you” as in people who get drunk and make silly mistakes. He was saying “people like you” as in “We don’t want gay people here”.
So I spoke to the partner I talked to you about earlier, and he said something to me that has resonated ever since. He said, “This is a firm of X hundreds of lawyers, but there will always be dicks. There'll always be people everywhere you work, despite whatever HR policies and processes they have in place, there will always be people like that everywhere you go”. He was saying, “Don't write off this law firm, don't write off your future because of this one person who happens to be one of those kinds of those people who are ignorant, uneducated, offensive, arrogant, etc. They will be everywhere you work and it's almost impossible to kind of prevent those people from entering large organization”. I think it was a really good piece of advice.
But that sort of incident has stuck with me in my head. I also remember one time, being out with a client from the US, who, you know, he was a nice guy, he wanted to meet over some drinks and lunch to talk over a deal. He was talking about the pretty, good-looking female waitress that we had over lunch. And, you know, I didn't join in with what would be back then seen as sort of lunchtime banter, but it made me feel awkward. And I didn't say, “Oh, actually I’m sure she’s fine. But the barman was much more my type.” I didn’t do anything to signal that I was gay. And I felt embarrassed about that. I felt annoyed with myself after I didn't feel kind of comfortable enough in that sort of social setting. But you know, I was, I was a junior lawyer. And he was a very senior member of the client. So it's…I look back and I'm annoyed at myself for that situation. And I just wouldn't this wouldn't be that person now. I wouldn't be that person. You know, I have the luxury of kind of being older and more secure.
I think touching a point you just mentioned, do you think the whole idea of being like the token gay guy, the token lesbian is a common fear that a lot of people just think about themselves that's going to be their identity?
I do quite a bit of research on diversity and professions. I've done work on sexuality at the Bar and on sexuality among large law firms. And certainly some of the barristers I spoke to as part of that work, there was a concern about being seen as a ‘gay barrister’. And the thing is that label is totalizing. So you know, no matter if you're exceptional or brilliant or whatever are your other attributes, everything else about you, you get put into a very particular box as being “the gay barrister”. I think that’s probably kind of much more problematic at the bar where you have smaller groups than, for example, in the larger law firms. When I was leaving practice, I was sort of really pleased at kind of how diverse the trainee intakes were; it was a very different than in my day. One of my nieces is a lesbian, she's 22 now, and I remember talking to her about coming out and how it was at school when she was in her teens. And she was like, “It was fine”, she wasn’t worried. She said, “ Everyone’s at least bi now”. That can’t be true. That cannot be factually true. But she was just saying to me that, you know, there’s a generational change, and it cannot be true that everyone is bi now, but I do think there is something that is happening in intakes, particularly in the largest law firms where you’re seeing more diversity. I'd be very surprised if in any intake, you know, you will be ‘the lesbian trainee’ or ‘the gay trainee’. I imagine it'll be kind of easier in a much richer, much more diverse group of trainees. But I think that concern about being labelled, about that label alone is one aspect of who you are. I can see that being a worry.
So, I think you touched on this a little bit in the previous question, but especially when you were starting out, do you have any difficulties because of your sexuality?
Yes, I mean, there was the incident I just spoke about around the vacation scheme, which actually, the associate was wrong for saying what they said, but I was very much at fault for being drunk on a vacation scheme. The worst experience for me being gay in the legal profession was actually being an academic. So I've worked in various universities. In one of them, I felt it was a very homophobic atmosphere with a number of my then colleagues. And these were people who thought they were good people, they thought they were not bad people, but they have very particular views on homosexuality. And the rightness and wrongness of that and the environment just felt oppressive. And I'm sure if you were interviewing them, they would say… they wouldn't find this believable that I felt oppressed or hurt or unwelcome in that place, and yet that's exactly how I felt. There were lots of lovely people in that law school who were very supportive and kind and keen that I stay, but I just felt that it was impossible until I left and went to somewhere else. And I look back on that kind of period in my life now, I'm glad that I left. When it comes to hard decisions about college or whatever or the kind of work you want to do, sometimes the idea is we should just fight the good fight from within and I just didn’t have it in me at that point in my academic development and career. That was a very particular example. Generally, things have been fine, you know, generally, sexuality is just another thing, like the fact that I'm from Liverpool, other aspects of my personality. My sexuality hasn’t been all-encompassing or all-defining in that way. You’d have to be very naive not to realise that getting a job in the legal profession is super hard. It's super competitive. And sometimes it's not always especially clear as to the criteria that we use to award training contracts and pupilage. So sometimes, being different can be your sword. Sometimes you can use that difference in a positive way. So yes, it doesn’t have to be every single aspect of you, but it can be useful.
I say this because I interviewed a judge, who was a gay judge. I was talking to him about when he applied to become a judge, and how the application process went. And he said, “Oh, yeah, I'm a white middle-class guy, thank God I'm gay otherwise I would have had nothing interesting to say about myself in this an application form”. And, you know, he was saying that in a joking sort of way but it was also true. You know, one of the things, one of the boxes he had to sort of tick, or one of the competencies he had to show was respect for equality, diversity and inclusion. And in that sense, he could say on the form, “As a gay man..” and so on. For you know, for people who are coming to you [Queer Lawyers of Tomorrow] and your colleagues asking those sorts of questions, you know, your sexuality might be the most interesting part of you; it might not. But if you're willing, I think, to use it in a kind of positive, proactive way and it's the thing that will differentiate you from somebody else. And if we know (and we do know) that large firms in particular, and Chambers who are a little bit behind, are looking to increase their diversity, then why not use it in your application?
Well, I think it links back to the previous point it made also about, you know, if your sexuality is relevant in your application, then use it, it is only going to help you. I think on a broader point, and do you think the legal profession is doing enough to support LGBTQ+ inclusion? Or if not, what do you think could be done?
It sort of depends on what we think we need as a community. So what do we want? Do we want to be recognized, to be valued, to be supported, to be promoted? We want to be treated exactly like everybody else, you know. The reason why I start off talking like that is that one of the bits of research I did a few years ago was on LGBTQ groups in large law firms and the function they serve. And we asked, you know, lots and lots of lawyers who are part of these groups, what sort of things do these groups do. And what they tended to do primarily, though not exclusively, was business development work. So, drinks events with clients. So, you’re a gay lawyer, one of your colleagues in the law firm has a gay client, you all go out for drinks together, what you're hoping is that you know, “You're a gay, I'm a gay, you're lesbian, a lesbian, we’re all going to get along and give the firm more business”. The lawyers who are doing that seem perfectly happy doing that, but as an academic I sort of worry a little bit about the commodification of sexuality. So is sexuality just another thing that gets sold?. Why is the law firm supportive of you whoever you are? Is it primarily because they see you as an asset in terms of business development or because it's a business case for diversity? Or does the law firm or chambers recognize the inherent value in plurality, in diversity, in a richness of people being different? So I think firms, large law firms in particular, have been quite good about throwing money at things like LGBT groups. I also did a piece of research that showed that large law firms have more LGBT groups or networks than women's networks. So the top 100 law firms, you find more LGBT networks than you do women's networks, which is just really weird. You know, why is it that you would have fewer women's committees, women's networks, than you do LGBTQ networks? One of the answers, which often gets put to me by women lawyers is, well, women lawyers aren't seen as much of an asset to the law firm as the gay male lawyer. You know, there is a thought, whether or not it's verbalized, that a single gay male lawyer, who doesn't have any obligations at home, isn't likely to have children generally, in the grand scheme of things may make more money for the law firm.
I think firms are doing lots of things. They're very busy. They're very keen to be seen to be doing things. What I have less confidence in is whether the gay lawyers who need emotional, moral, other types of support are getting that support from the law firms. I just don't know if that's going on in the same sort of way. The problem with all of that is that while we're talking about the LGBT community as if it's the same community, and you know, just from this conversation, your experience would have been very different to my experience. So within that community, within that kind of umbrella, different groups will need different types of support. And so, for example, you know, when I was in practice, I don't think the word trans was ever used. There were LGBT networks, but really what they were back then… this was 10+ years ago… they were really kind of white, gay, male networks. We didn't have a single woman in our network at Latham. It’s very different now. I don't think we had any black and minority ethnic members. I'm trying to think; I don't think we did.
I think that kind of answered my next question, which is, do you think there's a dominance of the G part of LGBTQ plus within these networks even now?
There is. The reason why I’m hesitating is that I'm an empirical academic. So I like data. I like to make claims based on data. What we don't have is good data either on the kind of underlying LGBT+ population in the country, or the LGBT+ population inside the legal progression. So what I want is a really good data set to be able to say to you, “These groups inside law firms, chambers, wherever else, do or do not reflect the underlying population”. My gut instinct based on my experience at and knowledge of various firms and chambers is that gay men dominate. Actually a few years ago, I was part of a really interesting panel at Norton Rose Fulbright created by their LGBT group, and the panel was called “Where are all the lesbians?” Yeah. And the panel was about where the women are in some of these LGBT+ groups. One of the things that came from the audience that night, which I thought was really interesting, was that a number of the bi and lesbian women in the audience said, “I feel much happier, much more comfortable, more at home, in my law firm’s Women's Network, I go to that network, rather than going to the LGBT+ network. That second network, the LGBT+ network, is predominantly full of gay men”. So the short answer to your question is yes, I think it is.
I think I've found that it's not just an LGBTQ+ thing but no matter what network you go, you'll often find one kind of person so if you go to a Women's Network you're primarily find cis straight women. If you go to BAME networks are primarily going to find straight, male black and Asian people. And it fails to recognize that there's so much more complexity in those networks rather than what we just perceive. So just to conclude, what are three pieces of advice you give to aspiring LGBTQ aspiring lawyers?
It’s hard to give advice in this situation without giving a sound byte or sounding like a Ru Paul quote, but it’s probably something along the lines of ‘Be yourself and be unapologetically yourself’. The legal profession is a competitive environment. It is a place where certain personalities tend to crop up and you hear egregious stories. This goes back to something I said earlier, if you feel comfortable, try and use your difference as a positive, use your difference as a means of difference in a field where there are thousands of people chasing handfuls of jobs at particular firms. I know you asked for three pieces of advice, but that’s all I got.