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Diversonomics | Season 2 Episode 6 - Trans-forming the norm: Gender identity in the legal profession

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November 14, 2017

When it comes to transgender employees in the workplace, should we rely on policies to dictate a firm’s culture or vice versa? We sat down with Clare Fielding, a trans-person and partner at Town Legal LLP in the UK, to discuss best practices when it comes to trans-people in the legal profession.

Episode tip

“In so many cases where a firm has a policy that says one thing, the culture of the firm is actually not quite what it says on the tin.” — Clare Fielding, partner at Town Legal LLP

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Episode hosts

Roberto Aburto

Roberto Aburto is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in municipal law and civil litigation, with a focus on real estate disputes, land use planning law and commercial litigation.

He is also an active member in the swimming and lifesaving community, serving on the board of directors for the Lifesaving Society (Ontario Branch) as the corporate secretary/legal adviser, and on the Lifesaving Society (National Branch) National Team Selection Committee for Lifesaving Sport.

He is also co-chair of Gowling WLG's Diversity and Inclusion Council and is committed to promoting these principles.

To learn more about Roberto, visit his bio or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in the areas of commercial and civil litigation, and medical defence law. Sarah also has ecommercial and civil litigation experience in a variety of areas, including contractual and construction law disputes, tort actions, and small claims court claims. While in law school, Sarah was an oralist in the 2013 Willms and Shier Environmental Law Moot competition, sat as an executive on the Women and Law Association, and was the vice-president of the class of 2013 council in her final year.

To learn more about Sarah, visit her bio or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Podcast transcript

Roberto:      Welcome to episode 12 of Diversonomics. The podcast about all things diversity in the legal profession. I'm your co-host, Roberto Aburto, from Gowling WLG in Ottawa.  

Sarah:          I'm your co-host, Sarah Willis, also of Gowling WLG practicing in commercial litigation including professional liability.

Roberto:      Today we're heading back overseas again, not literally, but we're going to be speaking with Clare Fielding, a former partner from Gowling WLG in the UK. Clare recently joined Town Legal LLP, a boutique planning law firm. Clare is a trans-lawyer and has been a role model to many in the trans-community and an avid supporter of diversity and inclusion at Gowling WLG and is here to represent her experience and thoughts. Welcome Clare.

Clare:         Thank you. Hi. Nice to be here.

Sarah:          So, Clare, can you let us know a little bit about your career. Where did you start and how did it progress?

Clare:         Yes, sure. I did history, read history, at University. I graduated in 1990. I didn't go into the legal profession at that point. I went into the Bank of England, actually, on their graduate trainee program. I was a central banking person. I had a regulatory kind of role. I was there for nearly 10 years or so. I kind of got interested in the legal side of the work that the bank was doing in a variety of ways. I decided to re-train as a lawyer which I did at night school. It seems a bit crazy now but I did 4 years of night school to do my law exams. I did that and I did my training at Slaughter and May and I practiced at Slaughter's until I was about 5 years post qualified. When I got to Slaughter's, you have to do a number of different training seats, and I kind of just fell in love with real estate things, in particular, and planning and zoning in particular, which is what I know specialize in. I did that 5 years at Slaughter's and then I joined Herbert Smith because that was a better place, really, to take forward planning in particular, which is my field. I made partner in 2005 at Herbert Smith and I was there, sorry, 2008 at Herbert Smith, and I was there for about 7 or 8 years and then I joined, this is a bit rambling, then I joined Lawrence Graham in London which then merged with Wragge Co and then subsequently merged with Gowlings. I was at Gowlings, the thing that became Gowlings, for about 4 years. At the end of last year I, and some other partners in the planning field in London, including my old group at Herbert Smith actually, we came together to set up Town. So we would be founding partners of Town which is a boutique focused planning law firm focusing on the UK.

Roberto:      And, Clare, it's funny you know. We have a lot in common because I'm a land use planning lawyer as well. There's not a ton of us out there.

Clare:         Yeah. Yeah.

Roberto:      We'll have to talk zoning and urban planning one day.

Clare:         Yeah. Yeah. That would be great.

Roberto:      Can you tell us a little bit about your experience about transitioning while in the professional context?

Clare:         Yeah. Sure. I transitioned very soon after I, a couple of years I suppose, into my career at the Bank of England. My transition process occurred not within the legal profession. It occurred at the Central Bank of all places. It was before the time when there were, you know, the word "trans" really even existed, to be honest. I mean it was still seen as something, I suppose slightly out of the ordinary and exotic, at the time. It's really been normalized, hasn't it, these days? That said, the bank were very, everybody really was extremely supportive. The bank were eminently sensible about how they handled it. They listened to me when I said I would like to do it this way or, you know, they were very compassionate, they were very kind, very decent about it. There was no real, in terms of the relationship with my employer and my work mates, there were no real negative experiences, in that sense. I do think it's now trans has become a thing, everybody's got a policy for it. It's all sort of in some danger of turning into big procedures but actually it's really just decency and common sense that need to be brought to bear when a member of the staff, or a member of a team, going through that kind of process I think. 

Sarah:          It's funny you say that because it is really about common sense and just treating people with respect. But I think firms and companies are recognizing the importance of creating a positive work space for all staff and professionals and in some ways having sort of formalized processes in place will assist with that. What sort of positive changes or initiatives have you seen since you first transitioned while you were at the bank and then over the course of your career?

Clare:         I think the most important thing for me is more the message that's sent rather than having a particular form of process.

Sarah:          Right.

Clare:         But you know, the message I think is completely different. When I was, you know, the thought there might be a trans-person in the work place, in any capacity, nobody had given it a minutes thought because it had never happened. As I say, nobody was … as far as I'm aware, particularly had a problem with it. Because it wasn’t a thing, it was not an easy step for me to take, whereas if it had been happening today I think I would feel, obviously I would still have the set same personal hurdles to overcome. Of course, everybody does, but knowing that in the modern work place, certainly in the kind of space that we all are fortunate enough to work in, it's a much easier place I imagine to take that step into. I think that's absolutely a good thing and that's in the work place, that's in society as well, and it's great. When I have small there were no trans role models, really. The only time, well: (a) you would never encounter a trans-person; (b) if they were depicted in movies or anything like that they would be a victim of something or a perpetrator of something or some kind of exotic other worldly creature, so there was no normalization of trans-people. I think the same is true of gay people. The same is true as many, many identifiable minority people today and I think that's, clearly, a good thing.

Sarah:          What initiatives would you like to see develop to promote a trans-gender inclusive work place moving forward?

Clare:         I don't think know if I could recommend any particular initiatives but I think it's just spreading trans as part of diversity generally. I wouldn't necessarily think about trans and promote that, or whatever, but the diversity gender more broadly, I think, would need to permeate, in this country, beyond London and the big cities and get out into the sticks really. I understand that things are not as on the diversity front in much of the country, in terms of professionally, as in London or Manchester or Birmingham. I think that would be the aim. Quite how you do that I don't really know. I think it would be for people who are kind of working in diversity space to answer that one.

Roberto:      From a policy stand point, I guess, you've spoken a little bit to the challenge of a trans policies in work places being maybe overly cumbersome as opposed to non-existent, which is still occurring a fair bit. Do you have any advice for employers on how they should frame their trans policies or what may be a practical thing to keep into consideration for employers that are developing trans policies?

Clare:         I think so. I've seen quite a few of these and the risk with them, I think companies should have them, but I think they are far, far better as a statement of the companies values and what is important than if you want to go through a procedure, "here's how we'll handle it" and "this is what we'll do" and "this is how you change your name badge". I think companies should get right away from the temptation to write some sort of procedures manual for this and actually just have a statement of the values that firm holds and, that in itself to my mind, ought to give people the confidence of how these things will be handled. Because people often have these diversity policies and trans policies and all kinds of policies but what really matters is how that firm actually behaves, is what the culture of that firm is. That culture is not set by having those policies so those policies reflect what the culture of the firm actually is. In so many cases, where a firm has a policy that says one thing, actually the culture of the firm is actually not quite what it says on the tin. I've actually seen, I won't name names, but I've seen that in one of the firms that I've worked at. That's been an interesting process. It's not Gowlings, by the way.

Roberto:      Ha ha ha

Sarah:          You were featured "In the Lawyer" which is a website grouping legal professionals, business leaders and decision makers in the legal industry in their profile series to mark London Pride. What does female role model mean to you?

Clare:         It's really important. It's a thing that I feel that I have a sort of a duty to do. Because I didn't have any role models, I suppose no trans-people of my age would have done, but had there been any reference point in the landscape, not that trans-people were special in anyway, but actually just normal. How great would it have been to know that you could go to the doctor and what the doctor was a trans-person, or your teacher at school was a trans-person, or your next door neighbour was and it'd be perfectly normal. That was the reason why I kind of decided a couple of years ago it was probably the right thing to do. Just to stand up and be counted. I'm not, and I never would be, a campaigner for trans-rights, I'm not that. I'm just a planning lawyer. That's what I do. I'm not a campaigner in any sense. It's not political. It's just sort of standing up and saying, "Hi. I'm a trans-person and I'm relatively normal and I've got a good job and am fortunate to have a good life. Don't despair because it's perfectly possible".

Roberto:      One of the big emphasis's that I've tried to have in my work in the diversity and inclusion sphere is trying to press messages out there for allies so that the community as a whole is engaging in these principals. Do you have any advice for people who have colleagues who are trans and what can they do to be allies?

Clare:         I think sort of stand with us. Gowlings is fantastic. They've got a really good network and you walk around, I don't know what it's like in Canada, but you walk around the London office and you see so many people with their rainbow flag. We've got these lanyards for our pass, we, you know, we Gowlings, we've got these lanyards for the passes and stuff. So you see people kind of just walking around displaying the rainbow colours all over the place. That's such an easy thing to do but it just must have to be sending a signal, doesn't it? That this is a place where there is no place here for intolerance or prejudice. It just sends that in such a visual way. I think it's really powerful.

Sarah:          Yeah. I agree. I love those lanyards. If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing what would it be?

Clare:         Probably to go into corporate finance.

Roberto:      Ha ha ha ha

Sarah:          Ha ha ha ha

Clare:         Ha ha ha ha. No. Probably tax, actually, be a tax lawyer. I don't know. I dare say every sort of middle age person would say, go back to their younger self and say, "Don't be so, take the cares of the world on your shoulders so much. Chill out. Calm down. Everything will be okay". That's not just a trans thing, that's sort of all aspects of life, I suppose.

Roberto:      Thanks so much for being with us here today, Clare. It's been a real treat and I know if our listeners are looking for you, I don't know if you want to plug your Twitter account.

Clare:         Oh. I'm really old fashioned. I don't have a Twitter account, I'm afraid. But they're more than welcome to have a look at Town Legal's amazing website which is www.townlegal.com.

Sarah:          Perfect. This has been an episode of Diversonomics. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please look us up at gowlingwlg.com and get in touch with us. Also make sure to check out the show notes for this episode at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics12. Last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on iTunes so you don't ever miss an episode. While you're at it leave us a review and let us know what you think.

Roberto:      You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and produced by Jessica Bowman with special assistance from Julie Chung, articling student extraordinaire. Until next time, be brave and be inclusive.


NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.

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