In episode 6, Graham Seldon is joined by guest, Michael Bidwell, a lawyer, Pride in Law activist and Editor of The Legal Forecast.
At only 26 years of age, Michael Bidwell has achieved a lot in his career but not without adversity. In 2015, Michael had a Partner tell him his sexuality will hold back his career. And during the marriage equality survey, a BDM told him to keep his views quiet so he didn’t offend his clients. But rather than be discouraged, Michael engages with his detractors to build understanding.
In this podcast you will learn:
- Why it’s important to be your authentic self at work and online
- How Michael promotes acceptance of LGBTI people at work by engaging with his detractors
- How marketing can support LGBTI people feel pride and acceptance at work
- Why pride in LGBTI employees is good for business
- How younger lawyers are embracing technology and assisting Partners to embrace New Law
About our guest, Michael Bidwell
Michael is an American who studied law at Griffith University in Queensland. After graduating he joined Australian law firm McCullough Robertson as a planning environment and property lawyer with renowned. In January 2019, he joined the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
Michael is an activist in all issues pertaining to equality. He has established various social inclusion initiatives and movements for LGBTI, gender-based violence, reforming abortion laws and volunteering each month with the homeless person’s clinic. He is also the editor of the Legal Forecast which aims to increase access to justice through innovation and technology. In 2019, he was awarded Queensland Law Society’s equity Advocate Award for successfully promoting Equity and Diversity in the legal profession.
A special footnote: we experienced technical difficulties when we recorded this podcast so there is background noise, which you may find distracting. It’s worth persevering, as Michael has so many great insights to share. But if you find the background noise off putting, you may prefer to read the transcript below.
TRANSCRIPT: Pride in Law with guest, Michael Bidwell
Graham Seldon: [00:00:07]
Michael you are an American who took the courageous decision to study overseas moving to Queensland to take up a place at Griffith University to study law. You then successfully graduated and remained in Brisbane commencing your legal career as a planning environment and property lawyer with renowned Australian law firm McCullough Robertson. And in January of this year you joined the global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. And whilst that should have been enough to keep you busy during the past five years, you’ve also been an activist in all issues pertaining to equality. You have established various social inclusion initiatives and movements for LGBTI, gender-based violence, reforming abortion laws and volunteering each month with the homeless person’s clinic. You’re also the editor of the Legal Forecast which aims to increase access to justice through innovation and technology. And last month you were awarded Queensland Law Society’s equity Advocate Award for successfully promoting Equity and Diversity in the legal profession. Wow! And Michael, you’re only 26. Welcome.
Michael Bidwell: [00:01:19]
Well, thank you so much for having me on here, Graham, and thank you for the kind words in the introduction.
Graham Seldon: [00:01:28]
I’ve got so much to ask you. My first question I suppose is what drives you?
Michael Bidwell: [00:01:34]
I think that’s a really exciting question and I think it changes as you progress through life and through your different career paths. It’s changed a few times for me but I would say, interestingly enough, at this stage of my career I think it’s actually those who have doubted me that drives me. When I first made the choice to come study over here in Australia basically mum was the only supporter. I think Americans were like ‘Why would you leave?’ What would Australia give you? Now I’m like well you know Trump is your President! I’m doing quite well!
Michael Bidwell: [00:02:31]
I was studying over here. And then as I progressed through Griffith University it was absolutely fantastic and I really appreciate all the support they gave me. But then as I entered the profession I started to meet certain people. In 2015 a partner told me my sexuality would hold back my career and I think unfortunately that really made me doubt what I had chosen to do with my life. But now I look back at that and at this point in my life where I’ve really established myself and think – Well, I’m just gonna prove you wrong. Yeah comments like that – we all get them. You can’t control what people say to you and you can’t control your immediate reaction because it can be hurtful but I think you can then control what you do with that after and whether you use it to empower others who probably received similar comments.
Graham Seldon: [00:03:35]
So you see one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was that you’ve got a very active social media presence particularly on LinkedIn and Instagram where you share your beliefs. How important do you think it is for lawyers to present their authentic self on social media?
Michael Bidwell: [00:03:56]
Yeah, I think it’s really important. Starting with the latter part of your question I did have a Business Development and Marketing Manager tell me during the marriage equality survey that I should be mindful of what I post because there might be clients that don’t like it. And I was like – Well this is my future and this is my life. So, I do think the marriage equality survey really gave those who are in the community an opportunity to voice their opinions. In answering your first part of the question I think that’s why it is important to be your authentic self on social media. Too often the [legal] profession is criticised for being robotic. Obviously, statistics show us that there’s mental health concerns and substance abuse and all these other things. And I think it’s important for lawyers to show that human side to say well this is what I’m passionate about particularly if it’s social justice focus. I think it allows you an opportunity to connect with clients on like-minded things because our clients are continually changing and I think lawyers have the opportunity to really show who they are on social media. Obviously within reason.
Graham Seldon: [00:05:40]
Just on this topic particularly we’ve seen in the past few years that some law firms have really embraced LGBTI plus issues. In fact, in January of this year global law firm Pinsent Masons won Stonewall’s most LGBT inclusive employer for 2019 in the UK, beating every other employer in the UK. A law firm was voted the number one place to work for LGBT plus employees. Why do you think it’s so important for law firms to champion LGBTI rights?
Michael Bidwell: [00:06:16]
Yeah, I think there’s a few key reasons for that to occur. I guess speaking just on a bigger picture the profession should really reflect the community that it serves and the people in it. So, having LGBTI plus lawyers but also reflecting that you know the social perception of these issues is continually changing. And it is becoming more progressive and inclusive. We do have a long way to go. Absolutely. But I think law firms need to really be at the head of saying well now this is what we need to do. To make it better because we need to serve this community going forward. On I guess a commercial approach (which always helps if you’re trying to get things started at your own firms) the statistics show us that people are more productive when they can bring their whole selves to work. And then also your clients are continually changing and your clients have obviously LGBTI plus representatives and they want to feel that they can send those employees to your law firm and it will be a safe space for them. Possibly connecting them to LGBTI plus lawyers so they can connect on something – it’s just a great opportunity there. Yeah a collaboration. And I think a lot of organisations are actually looking to law firms like here at Hebert Smith Freehills. We actually assisted a few clients with setting up diversity inclusion programs, which is exciting. I guess law firms have the infrastructure, the support and usually the money for these programs (sometimes you have to fight for the money but they usually have all those things in place). It’s just then about putting some process to it and I think that’s what Pinsent Masons has done incredibly well is that they are using every tool that they have to include the community and that’s why they got the top spot.
Graham Seldon: [00:08:37]
Yeah and they live and breathe it. I was in their Melbourne office this week actually and the Managing Partner in Australia said hello to me in the lobby and he had a lanyard with the rainbow flag. So, it’s not just a marketing ploy. They do actually live and breathe it over there. I was interested when you were McCullough Robertson you setup the pride community at that law firm. How do you go about setting up an LGBTI awareness initiative in law and how important is the marketing department in doing that?
Michael Bidwell: [00:09:15]
Yeah, I guess. It’s definitely going to be a different experience for everyone. I guess my push from it came from speaking out and it came from my belief we need to make it better and be more visible because there are people who are strongly against LGBTI plus issues. And that happens in a workplace. You can’t change every employee’s thoughts but you should still have the standard that everyone can come into work as themselves. So, my advice with starting one is you need to go into it with a lot of patience. You’re going to change the culture overnight. Respect that. They are going to be people – all different levels of education in this space. I remember when I first started talking to one of the partners there about it. He stopped me about five minutes and then he was like – But what does LGBTI stand for again? Sometimes you have to take a few stops along the way to get there. Yeah, it’s not going to be straight forward. There’s gonna be twists and turns. If someone says something disrespectful to you just always maintain respect. Always just be on the right side of it and say you know I don’t appreciate what you said but here’s why it’s important what we’re doing. And even if they don’t get on board you’re still seen to be the positive side of things.
Graham Seldon: [00:11:18]
Was it difficult to get marketing involved?
Michael Bidwell: [00:11:20]
So with marketing I think it’s really important to use them especially because so many law firms have values about inclusion or you know we respect everyone or even teamwork there’s at least one of those values that you can rely upon. That’s where the marketing team can really come into it because they can speak from obviously a strategic business development and marketing perspective to say you know, if our values are these then we need to actually be presenting ourselves in that way. We can’t silence a portion of the community because that doesn’t accord with our values. So, get the marketing team involved. Brand development is really huge especially if you’re launching a program. I am forever grateful to the marketing team at McCulloughs when we were going through that process because they just made logos you know immediately. And that’s really important. Obviously having the material to promote it but also that strategic direction.
Graham Seldon: [00:12:32]
Yeah, it’s good to know. Let’s shift the conversation to technology because you’re also Editor of the Legal Forecast. Tell us a little bit about what that is.
Michael Bidwell: [00:12:44]
Yeah it’s often hard to summarize the Legal Forecast into a few lines but you summarize it quite well. I would say we’re a group of passionate individuals, mostly student or early career lawyers. But we do we do have a partner, Angus. So, it’s a bunch of early career lawyers who are passionate about increasing access to justice through innovation and technology. That’s taken a lot of different interpretations over the years. So, when we first started we actually looked at the disconnect between graduating law students and the practical realities of working in a whole firm. And so we thought – Well maybe we’ll have students write articles about technology and innovation and then share them with law firms. Effectively give students an opportunity to network but also for law firms to start seeing what our generation is thinking. And then it just expanded completely beyond that. So, one of our most famous events it’s disrupting law and we have quite a few of those around the country where basically we team up students and whole firms to disrupt the law and come up with fresh new ideas.
Michael Bidwell: [00:14:24]
An idea we had last year was an app for people to use if they were tenants who had a complaint with their landlord. They would type in the complaint and then the app would pop up the actual form that you need to lodge to have your legal rights attached to it. Oh, because quite often tenants who might have a language or an education barrier will email their real estate agent. But that’s not actually giving them their rights until the form is properly lodged. So, it’s things like that where we’re starting to see gaps and how we can make it better. And then something recently just launched was a creative idea is that there are plenty of lawyers out there who have creative interests playing musical instruments, painting or poetry but they often don’t have a group to do it with. And so we’re actually forming an orchestra which is going to be amazing.
Graham Seldon: [00:15:38]
What role do you think technology plays in lawyers lives today? And where do you think that’s going in the future?
Michael Bidwell: [00:15:46]
Yeah I think from a working perspective technology continues to change how we work. So I guess one of the big topics before was our flexible working and even having distributed workforces are not actually having an office space or having very limited office space. Law firms are considering – How can we do this without spending a lot of money on rent? So, I think we’ll see some movement in that space. We’ve already seen some firms (especially the smaller firms) take that on board. Obviously artificial intelligence is a huge topic at the moment. And I think it’s on the junior lawyers to point it out to the seniors how we can actually use this to optimize the business so rather than seen as a threat. If we bring this technology on then we’ll actually be more competitive. And then I think just in a general sense our technology is continually challenging.
Michael Bidwell: [00:17:08]
Do you have Lime [electric scooter hire] down in Melbourne? We have them up in Brisbane so they kind of just start it up and they’ve kind of been working in a quasi-legal space as well. And I think we’re going to continue to see technology like that. And it’s one thing for the law to try and change rapidly because that just doesn’t happen. But, I think it’s something that we’re going to have to keep working on. Okay well how do we try and fix the gaps? So, it’s something that we don’t have the time to actually research what this technology is doing and then we’re expecting the law to change and I think yes lawyers that’s going to be a very interesting space for us going forward.
Graham Seldon: [00:18:23]
So there’s quite a lot in that answer – too much to unpick today. What you’re basically saying is that lawyers don’t really have a choice about getting onboard with technology and the speed of technology because technology is changing the way the world works and therefore the way to the way the law works.
Graham Seldon: [00:18:43]
When you and I first started talking about this podcast a few months ago we had this rather provocative title for our podcast which was going to be “Homophobia and Technophobia in the legal industry”. I’m pleased to say that we both we both came to the conclusion that there’s a lot more positive than negative things to say. Having said all of that I think you’re a change agent so to what extent do you think either of those things still do exist in the legal profession?
Michael Bidwell: [00:19:22]
I think it’s a fear of the unknown and of how it will impact the business. And the fact that they have no control over it. So, with new law firms starting up they embrace technology and find tech savvy ways of offering lower prices. I’ve seen a few very specialized lawyers from big firms go into these small firms so effectively a client can get exactly what they need at a much lower price. I think that most of the fear comes that type business and how they [larger firms] can operate within it. I would say it is generally the more senior members of the profession. The world is changing faster than they have time to adapt to what is going on. Whereas now every year we’re looking at new technology, whole new ways of thinking in whole new ways of communicating and I think that can be quite daunting when you’re not used to the constant change. Whereas I suppose the more early career professionals are used to it and they just have to keep moving with it.
Michael Bidwell: [00:20:42]
On the homophobia side it is I think it’s definitely still present. I was catching up with quite a senior barrister recently to hear what he thought and he said he still has lawyers say to him as an openly gay barrister that “oh the client’s a bit old school so you may need to just, you know, keep that part of your life quiet.” I think is quite shocking that lawyers say that to a senior barrister. To me old school is about the we respect we have for each other. So, if it is homophobia then let’s call it for what it is because I think that’s the only way we’re gonna start addressing these particular instances. I think overall the profession is heading in the right direction. We just have a long way to go.
Graham Seldon: [00:21:37]
I agree. Well I could talk to you all day. We’re having a few technical issues with the sound but you know what? It doesn’t matter because I think everybody is going to persevere to hear everything that you’ve said so I would just like to ask you what advice would you give to young lawyers who want to make a real difference in whatever area they want to make a difference in but feel constrained by their day job to do it? What advice would you give them?
Michael Bidwell: [00:22:03]
I think the first starting point is to really identify what you want your personal brand to be and this links back to my comments about social media. But like you need to find your passion and everyone has one. So, whether it’s assisting a particular group in the community or a particular charity that you really support. And I think that’s really important because then once you have that, I guess you figure it out. You can have discussions with your managers to say – Look this is something I’m really passionate about and this is why it’s going to increase my happiness which therefore will increase my productivity here. And most of my friends have had those conversations it’s been well received, I think. Law firms are starting to recognize that junior’s need to have lives outside of work. There’s obviously some that go – Well now you’re going to work here until 2:00 a.m. every day and that’s just how it is. But I think if they’re not allowing any of that flexibility then you need to then consider why you’re working there. You need to push for interests outside your day job. And if your day job is not letting you do it then in my view it’s probably time to move. And especially when you move you can really have those conversations in the interview and say well I’m only going to take this if you accept my terms. I think junior lawyers are often too scared and I understand that it’s a bit intimidating but you actually have a lot of power.
Graham Seldon: [00:24:21]
Once you know exactly what you want to do you can do it! That’s a very interesting thing to finish on. Michael you are inspirational. Thank you so much for coming on A Legal High. I’m sorry that we’ve had a few audio issues but as I said it was definitely worth persevering to get the content we’ve got from each day. I’m very grateful.
Michael Bidwell: [00:24:45]