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Firms must go beyond ‘empty’ LGBTQ gestures after pride month

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LGBTQ IP lawyers say using rainbow colours and posting solidarity messages on social media must be followed by concrete action

As we approach the end of pride month, it’s worth recognising that legal businesses need to do more than have counsel dance on floats and fly rainbow flags once a year, say LGBTQ intellectual property lawyers.

Pride month, which provides a chance for law firms and other businesses to demonstrate their commitment to supporting LGBTQ rights and give their LGBTQ employees a platform, took place throughout June.

Empty gestures?

But LGBTQ counsel tell Managing IP that firms should think about how to support their employees in the long term rather than focus on nice but ultimately meaningless gestures for one month, including changing logos into pride colours or posting supportive messages on social media.

Igor Ostrowski, a Polish national and partner at Dentons in London, warns firms to be careful about so-called rainbow washing.

“If posting a rainbow flag on social media is the cherry on top of all the other great work a law firm is doing, I’m all for it. But if it’s merely a social media post and nothing more, that’s a big disappointment,” he says.

Jeremy Saks, litigation principal at Fish & Richardson in New York, tells Managing IP that firms and businesses will have to create cultures in which their personnel thrive.

Alex Gardiner, patent scientist at EIP in London, is slightly more bullish and says lots of firms and organisations promote empty gestures during pride month and need to do more.

Legal businesses should set up mechanisms to allow them to make practical and meaningful changes to the status quo, he suggests.

Gardiner adds that there should be free and open ways for employees to raise concerns, ensure said concerns are heard and insist that action be taken.

Saks agrees, adding that workplace initiatives such as support and affinity groups could be introduced.

A few firms have granted direct control of diversity and inclusion matters to these groups, while others have made sure that said groups are led by a director who has a seat on the board, Gardiner tells Managing IP.

He notes that the firms that do allow focus groups to have real power will be head and shoulders above those that appear content with any initiative, provided it costs no money, takes no time, and involves no actual change.

Redefining responsibility

Ostrowski at Dentons agrees on the point of giving affinity groups power, adding that said groups should be built from the bottom up. Having such a grassroots structure allows the groups to avoid towing a company line while attracting support and buy-in from senior leaders.

“Once these groups are created, they need to be supported otherwise they risk becoming nothing more than a social club,” he warns.

He notes that the firm’s global diversity and inclusion group, which works with Glow (the firm’s LGBTQ affinity group) has the global chief executive and European head as its members.

There is also an opportunity for firms’ LGBTQ networks to think about wider corporate social responsibility (CSR), sources add.

Ostrowski says Glow works alongside a Polish charity called the Equaversity Foundation to support LGBTQ victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This partnership involves providing pro-bono assistance to NGOs that are helping the LGBTQ community in Ukraine and giving medical help to transgender residents that’s no longer available because of the invasion.

“A number of [male born] residents who are transitioning still have an ‘M’ on their birth certificate and so are unable to leave Ukraine.”

He adds: “This is a great example of redefined corporate social responsibility and allowing law firms and their affinity groups to identify issues and help amplify them.”

Mixed bag

But sources note that a firm’s public commitment to the LGBTQ cause will differ drastically depending on certain factors.

Saks at Fish & Richardson says a firm’s geographical location and the progressiveness of its leaders are two such issues.

Although big law firms have made significant strides towards inclusivity in recent years, organisations that may have more conservative decision makers or who operate primarily in unfriendly locations tend not to put as much effort in.

A partner at an international firm that has offices in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where sexual activity between same sex people is illegal, says it’s important to ensure that all staff have access to their initiatives and read about their efforts on internal websites.

But he rejects the idea that pulling out of those jurisdictions entirely would send a stronger message.

The risk of such a move, he suggests, is it could come off as a political statement, which wouldn’t make much difference. It’s better, he says, to stay and ensure the LGBTQ community is supported in those places.

Not everyone is critical of making symbolic gestures before enacting wider change.

Isobel Barry, partner at Carpmaels & Ransford in London and co-chair of IP Out – the LGBTQ committee within diversity group IP Inclusive – says she is less cynical than some about rainbow washing.

But she adds that her attitude could be a result of her age, and that she remembers a time when no one even made gestures.

“Companies changing their logos and publishing articles during pride month sends a strong message to their LGBTQ employees and others that they are welcome and valued.”

But she notes that attitudes may change based on age, and that the younger generation is perhaps more cynical.

She adds that training and education initiatives, a rewrite of firm policies, partnerships with LGBTQ organisations and the setting up an LGBTQ network could help.

The challenge for firms in the future will be twofold: ensuring that there is something behind the rainbow-coloured logos and that thing actually works.

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