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This month marks LGBT+ History Month, an annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary history, including the history of LGBT+ rights and related civil rights movements.
Darren, partner at the London office at EIP, tells WIPR about being a proud member of the LGBT+ community and what more needs to be done to promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) within IP.
What does LGBT history month mean to you?
Throughout history, LGBT+ people have had to hide their identities due to legal or social sanctions. So much of our history has been hidden. The contributions of LGBT+ people are often unrecognised. And even recent history that was not concealed—such as the progress and setbacks of the civil rights movements for LGBT+ people over the last few decades—is unknown by many people who were not around at the time, and even some who were.
This month is a chance to present our history and give our community some historical roots. We can rediscover people and stories that have been overlooked or neglected, and chronicle how LGBT+ communities have come to be and what we are.
What attracted you to a career in IP?
I knew about IP a lot earlier than many people in my generation. My mother sought a patent when I was in my early teens, and commented then that being a patent attorney might suit me. I knew a little about law (albeit in a completely different field) from working with my father who was an insurance broker, and I did consider reading law instead of chemistry at university.
When I decided after a two-year post-doctorate in Japan that a chemistry research career was not for me, becoming a patent attorney seemed an obvious choice. A friend from my university had entered the profession a little before me, so I knew something about what the job involved. It seemed ideally suited to a scientist with legal interests—it was absolutely the right choice and I’ve never regretted it.
Have you experienced any barriers or setbacks specifically related to being part of the LGBT+ community?
I don’t think that I have ever been actively discriminated against, but I do think that in my early career I felt under pressure to hide my identity in some situations. Not being able to be fully yourself, having to hide and dissimulate at times, is an ongoing burden that does exact a cost.
I think we have moved on from the situation in my earlier career where being gay was tolerated, to one where—in the UK profession at least— it is fully accepted. That is a big step. I don’t think we are yet quite at the stage that diversity is fully celebrated but I hope we are getting there.
What more needs to be done to promote LGBT+ rights in the legal profession?
Within the patent attorney profession, we recruit from the science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which has its own issues with LGBT+ D&I. I think it is important that we collaborate and assist initiatives to improve the environment for LGBT+ people in this area.
There are also problems with the international nature of our profession. While LGBT+ people may be able to expect and rely on acceptance in their workplace in the UK, in front of international clients and when on trips abroad to countries with different norms, the situation gets more tricky. I do not think that members of the profession are always fully supported in those circumstances.
There is also a problem of only certain types of diversity being clearly accepted—while gay people who are white may now feel fully accepted in the profession, it may not be so true for people of colour. And the very low numbers of trans people in our profession tells me that we still have a lot of work to do on our inclusion efforts.
What impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had/will have on D&I initiatives?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a setback for our initiatives as events that we had planned got cancelled. But curiously once we regrouped and began to think of online events, the attendance increased hugely—events were now accessible to people irrespective of their geographical location, and the time commitment was only for the length of the event itself.
Panels could be assembled much more easily. And many people came to rely on the networks such as IP Out as part of their support structure during lockdown. So although this period has been difficult for us in so many ways, in other ways it has strengthened the work we are trying to do in relation to D&I—and has made it more effective with a wider reach.
What advice would you offer to a lawyer experiencing difficulty with their sexuality or gender identity?
Now more than almost any other time in history, there are people who will accept and value you for what you are. Also, now more than almost any other time that has come before, you can seek out your tribe and find the support and encouragement that you need.
It may be hard to discern and accept your identity, and growth and self-understanding can sometimes be painful. But whatever you are experiencing, someone will have had a similar journey, so you never have to face it alone. I hope that those from my generation may have suffered so that those from the next generation may suffer less.
If there is one piece of advice you would give to your younger self, what would that be and why?
It’s very common in our profession to put off tasks or pieces of work that we perceive as being difficult or troublesome. But you carry the worry around all the time when you are procrastinating, and so over time it really erodes mental well-being. Learning to stop doing this was one of the most important professional skills I developed..
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D&I, Darren Smyth, EIP, LGBT History Month, diversity, inclusion, civil rights