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The rainbow ceiling

The rainbow ceiling

Despite claims that sexuality is a non-issue in Australian law firms, chambers and court rooms, readers have expressed dismay at hostile and unprofessional behaviour against gay and lesbian lawyers. Editor Kate Gibbs asks, can all lawyers crack through the glass ceiling?

GAY lawyers are enduring "sexist wisecracks" from conservative clients and "overtly hostile" behaviour from other lawyers, according to The New Lawyer readers. 

Following reports yesterday that the first major study into how being gay affects a lawyer's potential for career advancement is to be released in the UK today, legal practitioners have confirmed that in Australia, at least, sexism and discrimination of gay and lesbian lawyers are rife. 

"I've had both positive and negative reactions to my sexuality - a lot like society in general," one anonymous lawyer wrote. "Most of the negativity is disguised these days because people know it's not PC, but it is there."

Emails to the Editor have flowed in from lawyers not wanting to make a public comment, but asserting the various professional issues and problems they have faced as a result of their sexuality. 

As emails flow in, we’re asking lawyers and barristers alike to speak publicly, even if anonymously, to gather as much detail and information about the experiences of gay and lesbian lawyers in Australia. 

As we reported yesterday, the Law Council of Australia has so far done no research into how sexuality affects access to court, promotion, access to briefs, and securing the necessary social connections within the legal profession. But as long as the profession is quiet about any issues, the Law Council and other representative bodies have no reason to investigate the issue. 

For years female lawyers have fought for their professional rights, while commentary on women cracking through the glass ceiling has been prolific. Various women lawyers’ associations have hosted events and cocktail parties, conducted research and received sponsorship and financial support from law firms as they did. But, so far, research into how far gay and lesbian lawyers’ careers are affected by their sexuality has been stymied by assurances it is a non-issue. 

Obviously, there are many gay and lesbian lawyers in senior positions in law firms. Michael Kirby sat on the High Court. Many well-known judges sit on benches across Australia. But other, experienced and qualified professionals claim conservative and bigoted colleagues and clients are sidelining them in an aversion to their sexuality. 

Barristers and lawyers have come out expressing of the trouble they have gone to try and implement anti-discrimination policies to protect themselves, as well as face senior management in firms over colleagues' snide remarks, exclusiveness and "blokey behaviour". 

"Occasionally, older, less informed legal practitioners have been overtly hostile too," one professional wrote on The New Lawyer online. 

"Discrimination is live and kicking in my "top tier" Sydney firm's corporate department," another wrote. "Although the prjudices (sic) are certainly not an absolute bar to partnership, gay lawyers here are very aware of more subtle (and not so subtle) prejudices and discomforts (many of which are similar to those still experienced by female lawyers)."

Conservative clients make "sexist wisecracks", while others face trouble getting briefs as a result of their sexuality. 

"Some clients, partner are going to have an issue with outwardly gay lawyers and that would definitely affect their access to work, and hence promotion," another reader commented. 

This comes in sharp contrast to comments made by Clifford Chance tax partner Stephen Shea, who told UK magazine The Lawyer that any limitations lesbian and gay lawyers experience in their careers often comes from the gay and lesbian lawyers themselves. 

Post your anonymous (or not) comments below, or email the Editor. See today's e-magazine here

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