Coming Out To Law Firms- An Interview With Justin Farrance, Allen & Overy

Let me introduce you to Justin Farrance: Future Trainee at Allen & Overy, former President of the Warwick Law Society and all-round nice guy. He’s a member of the LGBT community and an enthusiastic supporter of everything D&I (diversity and inclusion). And, he kindly let me interview him on his experience of applying for Training Contracts.

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You’ve said before that a lot of people have asked you whether you mentioned being LGBT in your application or interview, so naturally, I have to ask- did you?

I get questioned a lot about whether I ticked ‘that box’ on application forms or whether I mentioned it in interviews, and my answer is always simple; yes. In my interview with Allen & Overy there was a relevant moment to talk about the legal profession and my individual experiences, which happened to link to the firm’s open and inclusive nature. In fact, during my competency interview, my final question to the interviewer was about how she personally found A&O’s culture and how she thought A&O would continue to remain inclusive looking forward. I chose to use the question part of my interview as an honest opportunity to learn more about A&O’s diversity and unique culture from the viewpoint of someone senior at the firm.

Despite having held a number of part time jobs and securing previous work experience placements, law applications/interviews were the first time I referenced being LGBT. So why did I disclose it? The simple answer is that I want to have a successful and fulfilling career and the only way to achieve that is to be comfortable and happy being myself at work. I don’t want to shy away from conversations about who I spent my weekend with or how I’m celebrating an occasion. To be the best I can be, I need to work for a firm that has similar beliefs and values to me.

Did you worry about mentioning it? From what you’ve learnt by speaking with other students, why do you think they are nervous about disclosing it?

From the outset, it’s really crucial to emphasise that students are under no obligation to discuss how they identify, nor should they feel pressured to. It’s equally important to stress that a law firm would never expect or demand a student to do so, which I hope people find comfort in. The choice is very personal, and you should only ever do what you find comfortable.

I completely understand why many students worry about mentioning being LGBT in applications/interviews- we’re students after all; no matter how hard we try not to worry about something, we always do! And it can also be difficult to speak to family and friends about sexual orientation. So, there is the potential for it to be just as daunting to be open with a firm, in the application form or an interview.

Personally, I discussed my sexual orientation and interest in diversity and inclusion because it was relevant to my motivation for applying to the firms that I did. So naturally, it unfolded in conversation during my interview.

 

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Option 1: casually mention your LGBT status in the interview. Option 2: express it subtly through your attire. 
Would you encourage the students reading this to disclose whether they are LGBT to the firms they apply to?

I actively encourage students to be proud of who they are and to disclose LGBT status if it’s right for them. I often hear from students who would like to mention it, but aren’t sure how to in a way that will add substance to their applications/ interview answers. So here are a couple of suggestions that might help:

University involvement – perhaps you volunteer for a LGBT charity on campus or were part of your student pride network/society. Using examples from this experience is a great way to demonstrate your ability to work in a team, show initiative and take responsibility.

Talking about the firm – does their open and inclusive culture appeal to you? Has a particular network or initiative offered by the firm support the reasons behind your application? If yes, then say so! It will strengthen your application by explaining your motivation for joining the firm.

LGBT events/ talksAspiring Solicitors hold an annual Pride in Law event, which I’ve attended and found to be great. It allows you to meet other LGBT lawyers and allies. Similarly, The Law Society hosts regional events that are open to students. Reference to these events in your application can be used to support your explanation as to why you want to enter the legal profession or train with a certain firm.

Personal interests – law firms want to recruit diverse candidates who have a range of hobbies and interests (not just people who spend all their time studying!) So in my interview I discussed pastimes I enjoy, such as travelling with my partner.

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However, it is worth setting the record straight on a misconception I frequently hear around campus; ‘you should tell firms you are LGBT because being gay ticks a box and by recruiting you the firm meets their diversity quotas.’ This suggests that merely mentioning being LGBT will place you ahead of other candidates- which when you think about it, is illogical. Firms recruit based on merit and an individual’s potential as a future lawyer. Not on their sexuality or gender identity.

When choosing firms to apply to, did you research the firms’ diversity initiatives?

While there have been huge steps taken in the UK for the LGBT community, there is still a way to go. Law firms have certainly come a long way, but I think it is really important to join a firm that actively supports the LGBT community. So yes, it definitely played a large role in helping me decide where to apply. It was also a useful way to distinguish firms from one another, and it gave me an insight into the culture and unique work environment in the office. Diversity initiatives were also a significant factor in my decision-making when deciding which Training Contract offer to accept and sign.

Here are some simple ways of finding out information about firms beyond their website or prospectus in relation to the LGBT community:

Look at the Stonewall Workplace Diversity Index. Is the firm you are applying to listed as one of the top 100 firms? Although rankings should be viewed with caution, they are a good starting point when looking at how good a firm is for LGBT employees.

Does the firm have networks for communities of people? Are there internal events hosted by the firm for the LGBT community and allies?

Does the firm have any visible role models or employees within the LGBT community?

Do they collaborate with charities such as StonewallDiversity Role Models or any other LGBT organisation?

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Prior to my application and interview, I asked questions to Trainees and Graduate Recruiters at Milkround events and law fairs. I looked through publications and followed the firms’ social media accounts which promoted the many events, initiatives and networks in place. Firms’ social media accounts such as Twitter and LinkedIn are useful ways of keeping up to date with what they are doing, the LGBT events they run and which charities they support/work with.

What do you think firms can do to demonstrate to students that they are an inclusive employer? Could firms do anything to make students more comfortable sharing their LGBT status during the application process, should they wish to?

This is a good question! Many firms are really active on their social media channels and this is a great way for them to show potential applicants what is happening within the firm and the types of events or networks which are present.

Beyond this, I think it’s really important that firms support organisations such as Aspiring Solicitors and other diversity focused organisations (which go beyond LGBT communities). This helps them to reach students they might not otherwise reach. Despite Aspiring Solicitors’ Annual Pride event being hosted by two headline firms, representatives and panellists from other firms are still able to attend. In fact, I represented A&O as a Future Trainee. This allows students to hear personal accounts from students and solicitors who applied or currently work at a number of different firms.

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Click here to see Justin’s Aspiring Solicitors Professional Ambassador Profile. 

It would also be highly beneficial to students if firms try to do more to promote diverse role models (such as those from the LGBT community) via graduate recruitment websites or on their social media channels. It would be very useful for students to hear first-hand accounts of the events and networks that exist within the firm, and how they might be able to get involved in the future. Many aspiring solicitors message me asking about the events I’ve already attended as a Future Trainee, showing the demand students have for personal insights.

What about your vacation schemes? Did you feel comfortable being yourself? Did you get involved in any LGBT events while you were there?

My vacation schemes were a great way to experience the culture of firms and assess how open and inclusive they were. During A&O’s summer vacation scheme, I felt very comfortable discussing what I did on the weekend with my boyfriend and what I had planned for the rest of my summer when asked by Partners. This was an obvious indication that their culture was a great fit for my personality and interests. Aside from this, their graduate recruitment team asked ahead of the scheme if anyone had any specific interests or things they wanted to experience whilst on the scheme. Naturally, I wrote that I was interested in hearing from a member of their LGBT network, ‘A&Out’, and other diversity initiatives.

To be honest, my experience was the best it could have been. The graduate recruitment team arranged ‘coffee catch-ups’ with individuals from their LGBT network for us. They even went as far as inviting us to one of the A&Out lunchtime events hosted at the firm in partnership with Diversity Role Models during our vacation scheme. This enabled me to meet a Partner who openly spoke about their sexuality and experiences, who was clearly a visible role model within the firm (alongside many others).

At the end of the scheme, my supervising Senior Associate commented on how proactive I was in meeting people from within the firm and building up my network. He said this is important when you start as a Trainee. Therefore, a good rule of thumb is to look at how comfortable you feel on a vacation scheme sending a polite email asking to meet up with someone. Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable emailing the LGBT network and trying to find out more about their events and support schemes. If you don’t, it’s definitely worth pausing one evening and thinking to yourself about why that might be.

Can you tell me a bit about the Stonewall School Role Model project – what’s the importance of role models? And did you/do you have any good role models?

Allen & Overy, as well as many other firms, support Stonewall and encouraged me to research their School Role Model Project.

In essence, their training day equips you with the skills and confidence to speak in schools around the UK who have partnered with Stonewall to provide students with the opportunity to hear from members or allies of the LGBT community. Attending school assemblies and classroom discussions is a great way to provide an opportunity for students to see visible role models and hear unique stories which help to educate students and prevent bullying. I highly recommend anyone who feels comfortable speaking about their story and experiences to sign up for the next training day with a charity like Stonewall or Diversity Role Models.

In a professional capacity it’s equally as important to have role models. Since accepting my Training Contract offer with A&O I have been invited to their A&Out events. This has allowed me to learn more about global LGBT issues and meet many people both within A&O and from other firms and clients around the city. I have recently been invited to attend Pride in London alongside a team from A&O this summer which further reinforces how open and inclusive the firm is, and as a Future Trainee will allow me to meet more people from across the firm in a fun environment.

I can say with a great deal of confidence that being open about my LGBT status has enabled me to feel more comfortable, meet a wide range of people and feel part of the firm’s inclusive culture. Naturally, I hope this will push me to progress to be the best lawyer I can for the firm and provide the best level of service to clients.

Thank you so much for answering all my questions Justin. Do you have any final comments before you go?

I just want to end by encouraging everyone to get involved in promoting diversity and inclusion. Until a time is reached where everyone around the world is treated equally, everyone can play a role, no matter how small, in ensuring equality is achieved sooner. Equally, each of us has a responsibility to refuse to accept homophobic slurs that may be said at university, home or in the workplace. No one should be made fun of for their sexuality, gender identity or for being comfortable in their own body. Sadly, this still takes place, but it can change and I’m optimistic that it will change.

 

 

If you liked what you read and fancy a bit more, why not take a peek at Christiane Sungu’s article ‘I’m a black female aspiring solicitor: Is my glass ceiling double glazed?

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