Aberdeen Women in Law Series: In Conversation with Nik Tait on intersectional feminism and being queer in the legal profession.

Aberdeen Women in Law Series: In Conversation with Nik Tait on intersectional feminism and being queer in the legal profession.
2024-03-08

Background

Nik (she/her/they) practises as inhouse Senior Legal Counsel at international engineering and construction company, Laing O’Rourke. She advises on dispute resolution, risk mitigation, and the successful delivery of state-of-the art infrastructure and building projects across the UK. Prior to joining Laing O'Rourke, Nik was a Senior Associate within a global litigation firm specialising in complex and high-value commercial litigation and international arbitration with a particular focus on infrastructure, construction and energy disputes. Before this, she worked as an Associate at two top-tier international construction and energy firms.

Within and beyond her employment, Nik is an intersectional feminist and LGBTQ+ advocate. She is the Director of Legal for Pride in London and co-chair of Laing O'Rourke's employee Pride Network. Nik is a committed proponent of diversity, equity and inclusion within both the legal profession and the construction industry. She has been involved in several initiatives that aim to raise awareness of (and suggest solutions to) the challenges encountered by LGBTQ+ individuals. She has recently been shortlisted for the upcoming DIVA Awards’ LGBTQIA Corporate Champion of the Year 2024 and the Bank of London Rainbow Honours’ LGBTQIA Corporate Champion 2024.

Francesca Farrington: Please tell us a bit about your time at the University of Aberdeen.

Nik Tait: For me, this question immediately evokes small sensory snapshots. I lived nearby, in Old Aberdeen, and I vividly recall the short walks to campus through the seasons. It brings to mind the ivy leaves turning auburn on the stonework of New King’s; the steamy windows of Kilau coffee in the cool crisp winter; the sun’s (sometimes feeble) attempt to warm Elphinstone Lawn in spring; and the glinting panels of Sir Duncan Rice Library the summer it first opened. My comfort zone, though, was undoubtedly the Taylor library. Upstairs, back right corner. That was my spot – guarded daily by whichever tomes were on the reading list for that week (plus a coffee or two if they were successfully sneaked past the librarians).

Professor Greg Gordon taught me my first Honours subject and laid the foundations of knowledge for my early legal career. Professor Andrew Simpson provided invaluable mentorship and was kind enough to humour me as the sole student that year for Scottish Legal History Honours. Mike Radford OBE challenged me and gave me the creative freedom to be intellectually curious in his public and administrative law tutorials. Dr Dougie Bain entertained endlessly and guided me through the final year’s dissertation.

I was born and raised in Aberdeen, so I settled into university life fairly quickly and had none of the homesickness or alienation that others from farther afield might experience. Nonetheless, I was fairly introverted and focused during my studies. I had been an academically high-achiever and a hard-worker in secondary school, and that continued throughout my university years. In hindsight, I wonder how much of that was about proving value and establishing a sense of belonging that I didn’t inherently feel. I had known I was gay since the age of 11. At that time, I wasn't in a familial, social, educational, or legislative environment where that was supported or celebrated. It was made very clear to me from a young age that this was viewed by some as ‘other’ and, unfortunately, sometimes even as ‘lesser’.

Despite this, I had been mostly ‘out’ during my school years. However, it was only in my second year of university that living authentically extended to my relationship with my immediate family. That was a turbulent period. As far as I’m aware, there were no active LGBTQ+ networks at the University offering support (and, if one existed, it unfortunately wasn’t sufficiently promoted). It’s encouraging and comforting to know that the University has made great progress in this area and that there's now a more established support network available for LGBTQ+ staff and students.

FF: What has been your career trajectory and what led you to the area of law that you practice now?

NT: In my third year at the University I secured a training contract with the Aberdeen office of international law firm CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP. CMS had a strong presence at Aberdeen Uni and easily took the top spot on my list of firms to join. I had always been drawn to the more contentious aspects of the law and, during my traineeship, my interest in disputes and litigation quickly solidified.

Beginning a career in Aberdeen typically means exposure to the oil and gas industry, and so my initial practise was focused on energy disputes primarily involving North Sea assets. I was very fortunate to have an excellent mentor at CMS during those early years and I still credit many of my current legal methods to her. Over time, I began to gravitate more towards construction and infrastructure, which led to a relocation to London in 2020. Once in London, I advised on domestic and international construction disputes with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP and subsequently with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.

Last year, I made the move from private practice to inhouse. As inhouse counsel, my involvement far exceeds the discrete legal elements of a dispute. It enables consideration of issues holistically, taking into account the wider business interest and a greater range of stakeholders. Working at the coalface of disputes is hugely rewarding: in my experience, the inhouse role is frequently more varied, challenging, and demands more creativity. It also accounts for me as an entire individual with ancillary skills and interests, rather than placing the main emphasis on billable hours and profit-generation metrics.

Construction disputes are amongst the most fact and evidence heavy, technically complex, and case-law intensive disputes in the legal world. This is not a law of hypotheticals and intangibles. It is a concrete (forgive the pun) practise where, particularly inhouse, the decisions made in the room are reflected on the city streets you walk later that day. I can give a nod to the buildings, stadiums, and railways that my company has created, and I can point to which of the cranes on the London skyline belong to our enterprise (…I promise I’m more fun as a London tour guide than that makes me sound). If legal risk and disputes are not properly resolved or managed, then vital construction projects relevant to all of us will face disruption or even failure.

FF: You are director of legal for Pride in London and actively involved in LGBTQ+ inclusion at Laing O’Rourke, what motivated you to get involved in these initiatives?

NT: When I came out to my family, one of the immediate concerns was around how my sexuality would impact my career. I couldn’t point to any visible and vocal LGBTQ+ role models in the Aberdeen legal profession, much less a queer woman in a senior position. This meant that, when entering the industry as openly ‘out’, I had to learn to navigate challenges with no real support or guidance on how to do that. I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. If those learnings can be of any use to even one other queer individual joining the profession, then it seems worth trying to share them.

Most of my advocacy involves talking about LGBTQ+ equality within the professional setting. However, we cannot look at this from a corporate perspective without acknowledging that the issue is an inseparably personal and emotive one. Whether it’s as extreme as blatant discrimination from government and the law, or a more minor unintentional microaggression from a colleague, these things impact one's sense of self. Our wellbeing and our performance suffers when we feel somehow ‘other’ - in any form. As someone with lived experience of this from a gender and LGBTQ+ perspective, and who is fortunate enough to be in a position to affect change, getting involved in initiatives promoting inclusion is fundamental to me.

I have been a member or founder of the respective employee LGBTQ+ network at every company I’ve worked for. Currently, as co-chair of Laing O’Rourke’s Pride Network, I assist the business in embedding diversity and inclusion into its core business strategy. In addition, I’ve recently spoken on several legal panels regarding the importance of diversity in the profession (both from a gender balance and LGBTQ+ perspective). Beyond this, I volunteer as the Director of Legal for Pride in London. Pride in London runs the UK’s largest and most diverse Pride event along with a range of programmes and campaigns throughout the year which seek to protect and promote LGBTQ+ rights and wellbeing.

FF: Could you tell us a bit about your personal experience navigating the legal profession as a member of the LGBTQ+ community?

NT: Compared to some other workplaces, the legal profession tends to be quite liberal and relatively safe for queer people. There are often budgets for Diversity & Inclusion programmes, established LGBTQ+ employee network groups, and a general feeling that your colleagues would support you in the event of discrimination. Having said that, I have nevertheless been subject to both flagrant direct harassment and more subtle microaggressions.

For me personally, the complexities are exacerbated by being not only a member of the legal profession, but also of the construction industry. According to Stonewall's "Workplace Equality Index", which evaluates LGBTQ+ inclusion in workplaces across various sectors, the construction industry has historically ranked lower in terms of LGBTQ+ inclusion compared to other sectors.

Mental wellbeing in law is, quite rightly, a prominent subject. Not enough is done to safeguard legal professionals from the extreme stressors they can encounter. This is magnified for LGBTQ+ lawyers. People within the queer community are more likely to be impacted by mental health challenges, and this is something I have experienced first-hand. Being LGBTQ+ doesn’t cause these problems – but the difficulties experienced by LGBTQ+ people can profoundly affect their mental health. For instance, same sex marriage was only legalised in 2014. This means that, during the majority of my time at the University of Aberdeen, I did not have equal rights. That created a permeating knowledge that, legally, part of who I am was seen by the legislature in my own country as lesser. The LGBTQ+ community is still not treated equally in law. Incredibly, conversion therapy remains legal in the UK (despite repeated pledges to ban it). Being transgender was only removed from the WHO’s list of mental disorders in 2019, and there are still insufficient legal protections for transgender individuals. Unfortunately, discrimination is not confined to small pockets of hateful groups, as some people seem to think. Rather, it still exists at the highest level of the country’s most senior officials and lawmakers. In any event, equality in law is only one part of the picture: even if the community had equal legal standing, this does not in and of itself guarantee equal treatment in society.

There can be some complacency in the UK. Many people are under the impression that LGBTQ+ rights are now secure and guaranteed. This is far from true. Regardless, we shouldn’t consider this issue from an isolated perspective, but rather ought to think about the impact on those who live elsewhere in the world and the message that we send out from the UK. All of the companies I have worked for have offices globally. This means they operate in jurisdictions where LGBTQ+ people are persecuted and criminalised. For me personally, that raises acute tensions. For instance, there is benefit in an employer offering as safe a space to its employees in those countries as it is legally able to – but there must also be a recognition that this falls short of the full equality it would otherwise promote. It can also mean asking employees to engage in business with state entities who do not share their view on LGBTQ+ rights. I have often worked on disputes based within territories where I could be imprisoned for who I am, and have had to decline visiting sites or clients where the death penalty remains a legal possibility at that location. I don’t think employers have fully woken up to the support needed for LGBTQ+ lawyers operating in those circumstances.

Laws criminalising the queer community exist in one third of countries worldwide. The reality is: money is influential. Where companies choose to invest (or, more importantly, not invest) has the power to profoundly impact political landscapes.

FF: Do you think there has been significant change since you entered the legal profession? And what more needs to be done?

NT: Visibility and representation is increasing all the time. Positive momentum has been gathering for decades and thankfully that continues to be the case. However, there have been significant alarm bells sounding in recent years. The resurgence of regressive policies, combined with an increase in reported hate crime, indicates that the future for queer equality is uncertain. In February this year, the UK’s only transgender judge resigned from her role due to increasing transphobic discourse and the politicisation of trans people. This goes to show that, even within the relative safety of the legal profession, trans people are still disproportionately affected by inequality.

If the legal profession is going to succeed in continuing to attract talent, it must prove itself as a safe and rewarding environment for the queer community. Recent research by myGwork revealed that 66% of Gen Z LGBTQ+ people would leave their job (or not join in the first place) if they could not be out at work. Additionally, 9 out of 10 students/graduates would be more inclined to be out at work from day one if they knew their employer was committed to inclusion.

FF: What role do you see for the legal profession in promoting LGBTQ+ inclusion in society more broadly?

NT: We could not have a more pivotal role in this. Lawyers are change-makers. Policy-setters. Thought-leaders. We have the ability to make a direct difference across all areas of prejudice, discrimination and inequality. We can do that directly, by actively campaigning for legal change, or indirectly, by being vocal proponents of equity and inclusion in our daily lives.

There is a role here for both those who identify as LGBTQ+ and those who are allies. The voices of allies are immensely important. Often, allies think they cannot or should not have a prominent position in queer activism, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. Educated, open, and genuine allyship is crucial to achieving true equality.

It is incumbent upon all lawyers to uphold principles of justice and human rights. By leveraging our expertise, influence, and resources, we can make significant contributions to creating a more diverse society for all. All legal professionals can contribute to raising awareness and understanding of LGBTQ+ issues within both the profession and society at large. This might involve providing training and education on LGBTQ+ legal rights and issues, conducting research and publishing articles on relevant legal topics, or participating in public speaking engagements and community outreach efforts. We can also contribute to the development and implementation of inclusive policies and practices within our firms and other institutions. Support and mentorship programmes are crucial, allowing lawyers to serve as role models, offering guidance and advice.

I would, however, offer a word of caution: the more vocal and visible you are, the more of a target you become. There will always be people who disagree with us. As uncomfortable as it can be, promoting diversity includes allowing for the views of people whose opinions are different from our own. The advancement of the D&I agenda cannot be made from within siloed and polarised echo chambers where the art of respectful, genuine and empathetic conversation has been lost. Healthy debate is important. However, the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion can be a flashpoint. It is important to safeguard your wellbeing if you are engaging in the discourse. Thankfully, a legal background goes some way to equipping us with the tools to handle hostility – including the ability to construct a measured response and, most importantly, the emotional resilience to withstand conflict.

FF: What is the main piece of advice you would give to LGBTQ+ students who are concerned about entering the workforce?

NT: You are never alone. As a queer person, you instantly have access to a chosen family. There is a robust community who will fight your corner. I hope we never need to: discrimination in the workplace is not to be expected and is not the norm. Generally speaking, there are many safe and welcoming environments available to you. The vast majority of my experience is positive and I have found that companies aim to be inclusive and welcoming (even if they don’t always get every detail right). However, in the event that you do find yourself encountering difficulties, please use the resources and reach out to the support available to you.

When choosing an employer, don’t be afraid to ask probing questions at interview. Push companies to demonstrate more than just lip service and aim to get a thorough understanding of their culture. It is your right to feel safe, welcome and respected. Avoid employers that engage in pinkwashing and performative allyship. Instead, seek out those that genuinely value the diversity of their workforce and are actively investing in an environment that encourages that diversity to flourish.

FF: You describe yourself as an intersectional feminist – could you tell us a bit about how this impacts your perspective on women’s inclusion in the legal profession?

NT: Intersectional feminism is a framework for understanding how different forms of oppression (such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia) intersect, overlap and compound to shape individuals' experiences, identities, and access to power and privilege. We all hold multiple social identities.

For instance, one part of my experience is as a woman in law. Sexism still very much exists in the British workplace, even if it now appears in more subtle guises. Despite the fact that women make up more than half of the legal profession (and female law students outnumber men 2 to 1), there remains a significant underrepresentation of women at senior levels. The gender pay gap in the UK legal profession remains prevalent, though progress has been made in recent years to address it. In addition to this, I practise law within the construction industry, which has the worst gender pay gap of any industry in the UK, and one of the most embarrassingly disproportionate ratios of men to women. These challenges exist before adding my LGBTQ+ identity into the mix, which multiplies the potential barriers to be faced.

However, I cannot recognise these challenges without also acknowledging the power and privilege I hold. To name only a few factors: I’m white, I’m a native English speaker, I’m not living with a disability, and I’m in a stable career which affords me a level of seniority. These elements, alongside the prejudices I’ve faced, position me where I am today: it is because of my lived experience that I am well placed to talk about some of the hardships faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and it is because of my privilege that I feel empowered to be vocal in doing so. I strongly believe that those who feel safe to do so ought to use their position to speak up for those who may feel less able.

FF: What activities/interests do you enjoy in your spare time and how do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?

NT: I am incredibly fortunate to live in London. The opportunities, culture and queer environment complement my life immensely. Through the week, for example, I play football with several local grassroots LGBTQ+ teams, or otherwise assemble in the pub to watch any match whatsoever featuring a Lioness. For the weekends, there are an almost overwhelming number of possible activities to suit any whim or niche passion. However, as is perhaps to be expected from a Scot, I soon wither in the city if I don’t have access to the sea, open countryside, and nature. If I have a clear weekend then you’ll probably find me somewhere along the coast, freezing my hands off in a rockpool looking for marine creatures to identify, or in a forest lugging around sticks for a dog I’ve borrowed that day.

This is all made possible by working inhouse for a company that respects me as an individual. That’s been a significant lesson in my recent career. The importance of enjoying life outside of work has increased vastly. When you start out as a junior lawyer, there can be an ubiquitous feeling of nervous energy. You are assembled alongside masses of your peers at the starting line of a race. Then, the moment the traineeship starting gun is fired, you must jostle the pack and begin your flat-out sprint. However, once you begin to realise just how long the track is, that sprint might become unsustainable. It is vital to find the pace that suits you. You may even find yourself opting for a different route altogether and the finish line might look quite different from how you had first imagined it. That’s a good thing. We shouldn’t be homogenised as lawyers or lose our creativity. There is no one way to ‘be a lawyer’, ‘look like a lawyer’, or ‘act like a lawyer’. This career is full of opportunities and the most important ones to seize are those that let you be authentically yourself.

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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