I have decided to write this account of my own struggle of getting a job in the legal sector despite having a Diploma from the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs and also to question whether transphobia exists in the legal profession.
First of all, a bit about myself: I am a 42-year-old transwoman (that is, a pre-op male-to-female transsexual), and I live in North Kent. I currently attend the Gender Identity Clinic in London about once every four months as part of the treatment. The condition is officially known as gender dysphoria, and those undergoing gender reassignment are protected under the Equality Act 2010. I am also an ex-serviceman, having served with the Regimental Band 2nd Royal Tank Regiment in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
I passed my Legal Secretaries Diploma in April 2013 via distance learning. Since it was a quiet period at my then-primary job, I knuckled down and did the course in just over four weeks, finally getting my pass on 23 April. I have just started with a relatively new and small firm based in Staines, Middlesex, as a Legal Secretary, and this firm is also funding my NALP training. Above all, they are LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) friendly. But I found them only after a hard and sometimes demoralising hunt for a job. It led me to the brink of suicide because of some of the attitudes I came across in my hunt. (I won’t name any companies or people in this document.)
Since the moment of getting my Diploma certificate, I started to apply for various Legal Secretary jobs in my area and started to get positive responses. Only when the prospective employers realised that I was a transsexual undergoing treatment did I find that the positive responses suddenly changed to a very cool or sometimes downright hostile attitude. Usually the prospective employer telephoned me to arrange an interview, and if that call lasted more than five minutes it was unusual. Normally the caller made some sort of excuse to cut the call short, saying they would call back, when they found out I was trans. But not one firm that made this ‘promise’ ever did.
I started to suspect that there was some discrimination going on because of my condition, as after so many initial positive responses, not getting a single interview seemed a bit suspicious. But the all-important evidence of such discrimination is all but impossible to collect unless you have a secret voice recorder hidden on you and record the conversation. I started to wonder if it was me or a general attitude within the industry towards trans people. I also emailed countless CVs to law firms, and again it was a similar story: those who replied soon backed off when they found out I was trans. Despite suicidal feelings, I battled on, trying to find a job and trying to ignore the, at times, bigoted attitudes I came across. I eventually found a part-time (at the moment) job in Staines, which is 60 miles from where I live. I will have to move there as soon as I can, as there is only so much of driving on the M25 twice a day during the rush hour a girl can take.
I started to talk with other legally qualified trans people, including solicitors, on Facebook and other social media platforms and found that this type of negative experience seems to be industry-wide. The question has to be asked. Why is this so? Transgendered people are after all human beings; those of us who want to work in law have studied to get qualifications. Are these qualifications more valid if the recipient is not transgendered? I think not. One of my contacts is a solicitor and is thinking about quitting law altogether because of transphobic attitudes in this person’s practice.
Why are law firms so reluctant to employ qualified trans people? Is it because of the often negative reporting of transgendered people in the media? Or is it something else? I think it is a bit of both. Yes, the media often portray transgendered people, in particular male-to-female, in a poor or negative light and often use derogatory terms such as ‘tranny’, ‘he-she’, ‘ladyboy’ or ‘it’ – and those are the more polite ones. Constant misgendering of trans people, referring to them by their birth gender or name, is also harmful and derogatory. These practices unfortunately have made it into what most people consider to be OK language when talking about trans people. I suffer from this at my secondary place of work but haven’t got the evidence to do anything about it because the discrimination is always verbal.
I also think that law firms are afraid of losing business because a trans person is on their staff. Why? Is it because they fear a negative news story from the tabloids if someone tips them off that AB & Co Solicitors employ a trans Legal Secretary? All you need to do is look at the recent news story regarding a trans teacher who took her own life after a negative story and witch hunt by a national newspaper. Is it really news that an employee is trans or has a trans history? I don’t think that hiring trans staff will hurt business. In fact, I believe it could improve business, as it might attract trans clients who might otherwise be too scared to get legal help when they need it for fear of ridicule and hostility, and believe me, there is that fear. I felt that fear when I purchased my flat just over three years ago.
The transgender community now is generally where the LGB community was in the ’70s and ’80s, but, I feel that at the moment the legal profession is back even further in regards to trans people. The feeling I got in some of my conversations with law firms whilst trying to get a job was that some law firms regard transgendered people as subhuman. I’m sure that is not the case, but that’s how it felt.
Changing attitudes is not an overnight task or even a medium-term job, but law firms need to change their attitude towards members of the trans community as both potential employees and clients. This means treating transgendered people as equals by hiring suitably qualified trans people if they are the best person for the job or by giving them a chance of justice or help if they are a client. Gender dysphoria is also a recognised medical condition, and would any firm deny employment to a suitably qualified person just because they had Type 2 diabetes, for example? The answer is probably no! So why deny employment to suitably qualified trans people? How many law firms in their Equality and Diversity policies include trans people? It is time for law firms to look beyond the fact that the person they are considering is of a different gender to the one in which they were born. Firms should look instead at the person themselves, the qualifications they have and the suitability of the person to the job. If the law industry discriminates against the transgendered, how can it, in all honesty, represent trans people in courts and tribunals and sit easily?
I know that the problems I have highlighted are not just confined to the legal profession but a problem in society at large, but remember that our profession, whatever grade we are, represents and interprets the law of the land. If we as professionals can change our attitudes to this much discriminated-against and maligned section of society, then maybe society will change. Many of the people who read this won’t understand the difficulties that transgendered people face, but if just one person reading this article changes their attitude to trans people, who after all are human beings simply living their lives, then it was worthwhile writing it.
Katherine Griffiths, Affiliate Member