Queer perspectives on law school and careers
The pursuit of a law degree is filled with anxiety and uncertainty. The development of a professional identity, maintaining grades, and worries about what the workplace entails are a well-known reality that students inevitably face. This challenge reaches a new dimension when entering law as someone from the LGBTQIA+ community.
Our identity as queer law students is inseparable from the legal experience in which we partake, finding ourselves facing unique challenges in achieving that balance between conforming to old cis-heteronormative* standards and expressing ourselves as queer and gender-diverse people.
Finding an interest in an area of law can be fraught with difficulties. Large commercial firms usually sponsor LSS programs and donate money to law schools. There are also reputation benefits for law schools who produce graduates that achieve commercial or corporate success. Therefore, there is pressure on law schools to promote these firms and the commercial pathway.
This is an area that is often teeming with uncertainties for LGBTQIA+ students and can leave marginalised students feeling even more alienated. Law school success is not one-size-fits-all and, like the queer community, is wonderfully diverse. Equipping students with information about their law degree and career progression is potentially the most empowering thing we can do for students. Familiarising students at the beginning of their degrees with this progression and the large variety of practice areas will allow students to feel better supported.
Students find themselves carefully navigating a legal experience that demands very specific skills in presentation and communication, laced in decades of rigid tradition. Upon entering law school, queer students immediately face the challenge of developing their own styles and outfits that match the corporate dress codes expected of them.
Expressing your sexuality or gender identity while also working within the confines of a cisnormative and heteronormative dress code is a constant anxiety for some queer and gender diverse people. The general expectations of the legal dress code reinforce the gender-binary. It has been designed by and for cishet (Cisgenger heterosexual) people and favours traditionally masculine colours, such as black, blue and charcoal; universally ‘professional’ colours. In examining the legal space’s preference for traditional masculinity and strict “male or female” attire, it is clear that the little to no opportunity for queer and gender-diverse employees to don more gender-inclusive, tradition breaking and diverse colour, covertly sends messages of exclusion to queer students.
However, Covid has helped push for a change in work culture as never seen before. For example, many firms are now moving towards a “dress for your day” approach in a post-Covid workplace. Hopefully, queer and gender-diverse students can better express themselves in developing a wardrobe unique to their identities that is recognised within the workplace.
Queer students are first and foremost searching for workplaces that provide real and substantive allyship. This means actively implementing things such as gender affirming policies, equal pay, and professional development in queer competencies, rather than acts of tokenism. Queer people, particularly young people, are acutely aware of rainbow capitalism and how the goals of some ‘corporate pride’ are primarily about profiting off of the LGBTQIA+ community rather than creating meaningful change.
As marginalised people, our history has reinforced our solidarity with the many diverse people in our community. Being an ally to the queer community means being an ally to all of the community; we must champion and promote intersectionality. Fortunately, several leading commercial firms have begun to implement these changes and also focus on queer related pro-bono cases.
These firms hold positions of power and it is our hope that with their influence, this will both pressure and pave the way for other workplaces to do the same. While allyship is essential, it is key that firms are actively hiring queer people and other marginalised people to ensure substantial representation in the workplace.
There is also a great deal that law schools can learn from the LGBTQIA+ community. The foundations of the community are rooted in connection, camaraderie, and mutual support. The queer community gives strength and comfort to those individuals who feel ostracised or alienated from others. Our best work is the work that we achieve with others. Law students often report that the pressure from a heavily competitive environment and the expectation of complete independence can lead to burn-out and protracted mental health problems.
A law degree can be a lonely thing. Those who have not had the opportunity to develop their interpersonal skills may struggle post-graduation. It is our hope that law schools will take inspiration from the LGBTQIA+ community in their approach to educating the new generation of law students, favouring community over competition.
* Cisnormativity refers to the perception of cisgender people as the norm and privileges them over other trans and non-binary people. In the same way, heteronormativity promotes heterosexuality as the default sexual orientation and equips heterosexuals with straight privilege.