The legal profession has been slow to accept diversity, especially in Australia and New Zealand, according to the former Justice of the High Court of Australia, the Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG.
The globally respected former judge, who retired in 2009 but has since remained active including leading the United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry into human rights abuses in North Korea, was a keynote speaker on Monday at the launch of a New Zealand law school’s LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) students’ community.
While such a group is a common enough concept in Australian universities as well, Kirby says that the unique factor is that one of New Zealand’s biggest firms was hosting and supporting the launch.
“I welcome this group in New Zealand. It’s a good thing that one of the big legal firms is supporting it and getting behind it…I applaud Simpson Grierson,” he says. “I hope the initiative taken by Simpson Grierson will spread to Australia. If these groups get the message that one of the biggest law firms is behind this then it will eliminate one of the biggest fears.”
As well as being good for diversity, embracing the rainbow spectrum of sexual identity is actually good for business and profits too, says Kirby.
“Firms that are gay-friendly have found it’s good for the firm because the person doesn’t have to leave half their personality at home.”
In an interview with Australasian Lawyer’s sister publication NZ Lawyer
, Kirby, who was the first openly gay judge of Australia’s highest court, says that the legal profession in particular has been slow to accept diversity and this has added to anxiety levels in an already high-stress job.
“Lawyers tend to be a bit more reserved, and they have to keep the secrets of their clients…therefore lawyers work in a culture where they have to be prudent and discreet, and I think that adds to [it].” He says.
Research has shown that those in the legal world experience heightened levels of stress from almost day one as law school students, and this can lead to a whole raft of mental health problems including depression and suicide. It becomes even more complicated when you add issues with unresolved sexuality into the equation.
Considering these statistics, Kirby says it’s vital that LGBTI students have a network of support and the spirit of a community where they can get together.
“It’s been slow to happen. They’ve had “OUTLaw” organisations in the US and Canada for 20 or 30 years, and the fact that we’re still developing this in Australia and New Zealand is a sign of the times [here],” he says. “I think the message is coming. Certainly New Zealand in some respects [is] in advance of Australia.”
Up until now, the University of Auckland’s Law School in New Zealand did not have a LGBTI-specific support group, however several months ago a senior lecturer and equity co-ordinator there approached national top tier Simpson Grierson with an idea of partnering with law firms to help get a LGBTI support network off the ground.
The firm, which already has an established internal pride network, loved the idea.
“We want to make sure aspiring lawyers know our firm is a place where they can be free to be themselves. It's all part of our desire to be open and lead the profession in terms of diversity,” Simpson Grierson’s HR director Jo Copeland says.
And now that the LGBTI law community has been launched, the firm will stay involved with the group by offering mentoring to aspiring gay students and running debates for them on the legal issues in the coming year.
Kirby says he hasn’t yet heard of a big firm supporting a LGBTI university community in Australia: While the groups exist at university level they are usually organised by the students themselves, he says.
The former Justice of the High Court of Australia, who has been with his partner for more than 45 years, adds that he’s seen a lot change in his lifetime in regards to perceptions about the gay community.
When he started out in the judiciary, being gay was still a criminal offence in Australia.
“That added to the stigma and violence against gay people,” he says. “Eventually [the laws] were changed thanks to strong action by politicians on both sides. All of this is a journey…I think it’s getting better and certainly amongst young people.”
There is still a large part of the journey to go, but Kirby remains positive.
“If you have leaders, champions and advocates then the process of change takes place.”