Out Front: An LGBTQ Leadership Spotlight interview with Jim Ford, Partner & Chair of A&Out at Allen & Overy (part 1)

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Overseeing a global LGBTQ employee network is no small feat, especially at a law firm like Allen & Overy, one of the world’s largest and most profitable legal service providers.

The firm currently touts approximately 5,500 total employees in more than 40 offices globally. The firm has also cited diversity as a strategic business priority, seeking to achieve greater gender balance and better racial and ethnic representation at the highest levels of the organization while promoting more robust LGBTQ+ inclusion.

The Thomson Reuters Institute recently sat down with Jim Ford, Chair of A&Out (Allen & Overy’s global LGBTQ network), to discuss the state of LGBTQ inclusion and representation in our current political climate.

Thomson Reuters Institute: As co-head of Allen & Overy’s global Life Sciences sector group and Chair of A&Out, you play a crucial role within your firm. How do you balance such important obligations?

Jim Ford: At times, it can be challenging. But, as with everyone at the senior level of A&O, we often wear a number of hats. Our client work inevitably comes first, but many of the other areas that we’re involved in are absolute strategic priorities for the firm.

It is therefore critical that, when taking on management responsibilities, you carve out enough time to address all your commitments. And we’re very lucky to have an internal mentality that ours is not a purely billable hours-driven culture. Indeed, the value of spending time on diversity issues, sector management roles, things like that, is absolutely recognized by central management as on par with — if not sometimes more important than — the hours we are billing.

I should add that there are also terrific teams of people alongside us on all of these areas of which I get the luxury of being the face. In my life sciences role, I have a co-head with whom I share the burden, and fantastic business development support who work alongside us.


Jim Ford, Chair of A&Out (Allen & Overy’s global LGBTQ network)

Being the chair of A&Out is something very dear to my heart, but it’s never a challenge for A&Out to find volunteers. We are blessed with a very enthusiastic associate and trainee body, along with a really knowledgeable and active central diversity team within our HR function.

Thomson Reuters Institute: You’ve spoken previously about the impact of top-down leadership and visible LGBTQ role models within healthy and inclusive organizations. What advice would you give senior leadership at other firms that are looking to bolster their LGBTQ representations or employee networks?

Jim Ford: First and foremost, this isn’t hard. I think there have been times in the past — and I’ve been at A&O for 25 years now — where senior management both at A&O and at other firms across the city have felt that they are not coming from a place of knowledge and not coming from a place of personal experience on some of these diversity topics, and therefore they feel that they don’t know what to discuss.

Thankfully, that’s changed. Senior management feels empowered to voice the importance of inclusivity for everybody and not shy away from the fact that diversity & inclusion (D&I) is simply the right thing to do. We also shouldn’t shy away from the fact that there are business wins to be had. An engaged, happy workforce is going to be more productive. A diverse workforce is going to come up with more robust solutions.

When I was a trainee at A&O, there weren’t any openly LGBTQ partners. There was no one I could look to and say, “Oh, they’re like me. I can make it.” And while I’ve never experienced any overt discrimination through my career, there have been various times where I felt, “I’m not like everybody else. Do I have to tailor my behavior?” It’s that constant pressure. You can’t come out once to your colleagues. You have to come out repeatedly to every new client and colleague. It is challenging.

If there had been someone more senior to look up to and think, “Oh look. This isn’t an issue. I can be my authentic self,” I think it would have been a lot easier. And I think that’s the critical part here. Not just from LGBTQ-identifying senior role models, but also senior allies. It is just as simple as delivering the message that, at this company, everyone can be themselves.

When I was a trainee at A&O, there weren’t any openly LGBTQ partners. There was no one I could look to and say, “Oh, they’re like me. I can make it.”

Luckily, that’s where we’ve got to — at A&O we’re blessed with a very supportive senior management team. Our senior partner and our managing partner — both the outgoing one and the incoming one who took over this year — absolutely respect D&I as a strategic priority. It’s actually one of the firm’s five strategic priorities, and once you commit to something on paper, people have to deliver. That’s a game-changer. It has everyone’s attention now.

Thomson Reuters Institute: As a global firm, your LGBTQ network ostensibly includes members in countries where homosexuality is outlawed or condemned. How does the firm work to ensure employees feel comfortable within an A&O office?

Jim Ford: This is difficult in practice, but our policy is simply that in the A&O workplace everyone can be themselves. A&O makes every office a safe space. Not every country has official anti-discrimination legislation; and yes, we have offices in countries that condemn homosexuality or outlaw the promotion of same-sex relationships. Still, we consistently apply an inclusive policy no matter the country or location.

Clearly, in practice, when we talk about a global LGBTQ network, the types of activities we get involved in vary from country to country, and there are sensitivities of which we are acutely aware and need to respect. But, certainly within A&O offices, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Amid the ongoing generational shift in law firms, are law firms doing enough to attract top-tier LGBTQ legal and professional talent?

Jim Ford: It’s difficult to know what enough is. Certainly, I don’t think the issue we face is actually at the attracting or recruitment level, I think it’s more about retention. And that’s probably the case for both A&O and the legal sector generally.

As a firm, we have a really energetic group of trainees, whether LGBTQ-identifying or LGBTQ allies. If you compare the proportionate level of LGBT-identifying trainees at our firm to that of wider society, it would suggest that we are doing enough to satisfy D&I tenets. Yet, as you go up through levels of seniority, something goes wrong — and that’s true, whether you talk about LGBTQ or race and is particularly noticeable with gender.

When you get through to the partnership levels, where has the diverse talent gone? Most firms have very poor statistics around female partners, gay partners, Black partners, etc. I think the profession as a whole needs to look at itself and say, “What’s going wrong?”

Firms need to do more and look at themselves quite carefully, and say, “Why are these people leaving?” And a lot of it comes down to role models, behaviors, making people feel 100% comfortable that they can be themselves.

You can read Part 2 of this interview next week.