Rachel Reese, CEO and Founder of Global Butterflies and Vice Chair of the Law Society LGBT+ Lawyers Division
Could you tell us about yourself and what you do?
My name is Rachel Reese and I am CEO of Global Butterflies which is a trans and non-binary inclusion training company. We work in the corporate sphere and often in the legal sector. I trained as a solicitor in the 90s and joined the University of Law, working there for 15 years. I left Ulaw as Production Director five years ago to set up Global Butterflies. I am also Vice Chair of The Law Society Solicitors’ Division and trustee of LGBTQI charity GiveOut.
Global Butterflies is a very fitting name, what do you think it is like for people who are ‘visible’ in the legal profession?
I think the experience differs.
We know a lot of success stories of people who are visible in the legal profession and their experience through the recruitment process has been positive. But there are also a lot of trans and non-binary individuals whose experiences have been dreadful. We often hear about transitions that haven’t particularly gone well when a person has changed their gender expression in the workplace.
I think there is a great deal of work to be done, not just in the legal profession but also in other sectors. There has been a big headway made in the legal space, but as I say, we still have work to do, the negative comments from lawyers under pro trans articles in the press make me sob.
My experience in the legal profession was very bumpy which is why I am passionate about changing the profession’s direction to make sure all trans and non-binary people have a fair ‘crack of the whip’ through recruitment and employment processes.
Equality is very important, especially in such a competitive sector, do you think people are ever advised against putting their sexuality or gender identity on application forms, or do you think they’re ever afraid to?
I was advised not to disclose my gender identity on an application form. In fact, I did try and get training contracts in the 90s in my female expression and it was atrocious. In my experience, being interviewed as a visible trans woman was ridiculously hard back then. As a result, and because I was only in the early stages of transition after law school, I reverted to my male expression and definitely remember putting ‘Male’ on the application form for the University of Law. When I joined the University of Law in male expression, I lived a double life. I was working in a male expression in work and then living in female expression outside of work as much as I could. It was an awful time.
What I would say to people today is that you should never be afraid to disclose your gender expression because you have got to go into a firm being your authentic self. The fact is, if the firm doesn’t want you for expressing your gender identity openly, then that’s not the firm for you. You should be seeking out the firms where you can openly express your gender identity, e.g. during the recruitment process.
Were you ever personally anxious to come ‘out’ in the workplace? Do you ever feel anxious coming ‘out’ to new people?
Yes, absolutely in the past.
But not anymore, because I am very much out as an activist and trainer in the trans and non-binary space. However, when I joined the University of Law in male expression, I certainly didn’t tell anybody that I was transgender. I didn’t want anybody to know because it didn’t feel safe. There were not many visible trans people in the corporate sphere back in the 90s, especially in the legal profession. But as time went on, I looked for signs and signals and I started to see a softening at the University of Law – more gay and lesbian lecturing staff, for example. That is when I started to feel that maybe I could transition safely there which eventually I did, and it was absolutely fine, and everyone was really great.
When we speak to people who have come out in the workplace today and ask why they decided to transition, they often say it was because they’ve spotted the trans inclusion signs and signals, such as a senior partner coming to an Allies meeting or the managing partner participating in Pride etc
Could you expand on the difficulties you’ve face due to your gender identity and how you overcame them?
Yes, absolutely. The law and I have been difficult bedfellows.
Firstly, I could not get a training contract as a trans woman but was offered two training contracts in male expression. Because I could not get a training contract in female expression, that forced me back in the closet. Secondly, two years ago I applied to be a magistrate, during the very last interview, a panellist, was extremely hostile to me, this made it an incredibly difficult experience and I did not make it. This was really disappointing because of all the work and research I had done. There was one other incident, but I cannot really go public on that.
These experiences just made me want to work harder and push further with Global Butterflies in the legal profession. I just want the legal sector to be a great experience for trans and non-binary people.
You’ve touched on this a bit, but do you think the legal profession is doing enough to encourage the inclusion of LGBTQ+ employees? If not, what more could be done?
I think yes and no.
If I look back in the 90s, there was nothing. Although I saw some progression at the University of Law whilst I was there. However, in the 5 years that I have been training people about trans and non-binary awareness, I have noticed many firms working on trans & non-binary inclusion. A lot of law firms are in the Stonewall WEI for example. There is a great willingness in the profession to move in the right direction.
But you have to look at the fact that 2% of solicitors are on the gender identity spectrum (SRA Statistic) and we certainly do not have that level of visibility now. At Global Butterflies, we support a lot of people who are not out in law firms because they are worried about their firm’s reaction to their transition and their partnership track.
So, what can be done? I think organisations like Queer Lawyers of Tomorrow and Aspiring Solicitors aimed at young people at university, entering the profession, are doing great work and we need more of that. We need to raise that awareness every day of the year. Interlaw are doing great work for lawyers already working in the profession also.
On top of my previous question, do you think enough is being done to focus on intersectionality within minority groups?
I don’t think there are enough intersectional events, firms starting out will often do all trans panels and all trans events but those firms that are more advanced in promoting diversity awareness will do more intersectional events, which I’d love to see more of. For instance, I am a woman, lesbian, Irish, dyslexic, have mental health issues and am trans!!! People are multi-layered, we need to be seen as more than just one characteristic.
Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to aspiring LGBTQ+ legal professionals?
To start with, do your research and check out the “trans brand”, look for signs and signals to see whether they are trans and non-binary inclusive. Look at their social media presence, whether their application forms are gender inclusive or if they have any networks for minority groups. Also, network and talk to lawyers to find out what is happening in the profession or in their firms/chambers, organisations like Interlaw for solicitors and FREEBAR for Barristers hold networking events.
Finally, keep your perspective as there will be a lot of rejections, not because you are LGBTQ+ but just because everyone gets rejections. It is a lengthy process, but you will come through it successfully, if you keep your head.