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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Out Front: An LGBTQ Leadership Spotlight interview with Jim Ford, Partner & Chair of A&Out at Allen & Overy

· 7 minute read

· 7 minute read

In a Thomson Reuters Institute interview with Jim Ford, Chair of A&Out (Allen & Overy’s global LGBTQ network), we discussed LGBTQ representation in our current political climate.

Thomson Reuters Institute: In a July 2019 interview with World Trademark Review, you mentioned the importance of adopting a more “holistic” approach to diversity, including the L, B, and T+ space of the LGBTQ community. Can you talk about what efforts you and the firm are championing, especially in today’s highly charged sociopolitical climate?

Jim Ford: I think there are a number of points there. My view on this has shifted since I said “holistic” at the time because this issue is very nuanced. And, as you say, the recent sociopolitical climate has actually focused people’s attention.

What I meant at the time is that our diversity & inclusion (D&I) strategy needs to include everyone. We want everyone to be themselves. When I think of the many active LGBTQ networks in place across London, they are predominantly — and this is a sweeping generalization, I accept — created by and designed for gay white men. This is not to say that, at the time of each organization’s creation, there may have been a need for this particular demographic to network and convene. (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with groups of white gay men wanting to share their own experience.)

However, we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize the obvious challenges in the current political environment. It’s a lot easier being a gay white man than it is being even a white lesbian or a trans or Black gay man. That’s why it is very important that what we’re doing is truly inclusive, and that we don’t take the view of, well, the majority of our network is gay, and therefore a reflection of everyone else.

Ours needs to be an agenda that changes things and corrects the lack of proportionality within our workforce across all strands of diversity. We have been doing a lot, including having professional instruction around the vocabulary of trans and talking openly about D&I issues that we truly don’t understand.

Jim Ford, Chair of A&Out (Allen & Overy’s global LGBTQ network)

I think that’s one of the sea changes in diversity. I also feel that sometimes nuance can be lost whenever organizations say, “everyone should be treated equally.” It’s a very noble statement, and it’s very admirable; but it misses an opportunity to truly connect with and appreciate the differences within our own workforce. Think about the Black Lives Matter movement. We shouldn’t shy away from talking about the unique and disproportionate experiences people have. And we can’t just say everyone should be treated equally — effectively, that everyone’s the same — and call it a day. I think that skirts the issue.

So, a lot of the efforts we are currently exploring are around helping people understand others’ perspective, whether trans, Black or another diverse background. And equally, gender within the city, which is still one of the biggest challenges we’ve got. People sweep some of the differences under the carpet. Someone who is a mother who has just had a child and wants to return to work has their own set of challenges. And just by saying “everyone’s equal,” I think we don’t do justice to what we need to do to move the needle.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Among your numerous pro bono accolades, you advised Stonewall on the passage of Turing’s Law in the United Kingdom. How was that experience? As of 2017, there were 15,000 men still alive out of a total of 65,000 individuals convicted of gross indecency. Several of these constituents expressed displeasure over the term “pardon,” given the implied “guilt” of being homosexual. How controversial was the notion of “pardoning” in the conversations leading up to this legislation?

Jim Ford: I don’t want to overplay my role in this. I was one of the partner supervisors, but again, the legwork was done by some really enthusiastic associates and trainees. But, yes, everyone involved in this was acutely aware that something had to happen. Would everyone’s preference have been the complete expunging of these “crimes” from the record as opposed to a pardon? Absolutely.

We need to be honest with ourselves and recognize the obvious challenges in the current political environment. It’s a lot easier being a gay white man than it is being even a white lesbian or a trans or Black gay man.

There are many other things, to my mind, that are wrong with the legislation. People, for example, have to apply rather than having their convictions automatically disregarded. And the scope of the offenses covered is not as broad as it needs to be. Indeed, the legislation doesn’t wipe clean any charges which are still crimes today. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s (and probably even before), thousands of men were charged with “soliciting” or “importuning for an immoral purpose” under Section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Soliciting itself is still a crime in the U.K., and as a result, many individuals’ applications were rejected because their crimes are considered ineligible.

When you look at the statistics since Turing’s Law’s passage, it’s quite shocking in terms of the low number of applicants [who have requested a pardon], and the disproportionately high number of declined requests. [Note: Official estimates suggest that, of the 100,000 men convicted under U.K. anti-gay laws, more than 10,000 remain alive today.)

Still, it’s clearly better that this first step has finally been taken after so many years of inaction. But, yes, there are certainly many campaigners and affected individuals that don’t consider this matter closed.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Finally, what advice would you give associates or partners looking to take on LGBTQ-related pro bono work at their firm? Can law firms do more to promote this type of opportunity for their employees?

Jim Ford: As a firm, we’ve never really struggled in this area. We’ve got a really active pro bono program, with a lot of employees engaged doing great work for a wide range of charities.

I’m on the board of a diversity charity, Diversity Role Models, for example. We’ve also just signed up to be a corporate supporter for Queer Britain, which is trying to launch the very first LGBT-dedicated museum in the U.K., and also do a lot with Stonewall.

There is a lot of pro bono work out there in this space. I often see emails going around the firm asking people to get involved, and there is never a shortage of volunteers for LGBTQ-focused pro bono opportunities. In terms of associates at other firms, [they should] speak to their pro bono teams to find out what pro bono plans are in place. If there aren’t enough LGBT organizational partnerships available, go out and find them and put a proposal together for the pro bono teams.

Most organizations aren’t turning people down. So long as the employees are willing to dedicate their time, it’s often an easy ask.