Allens Confidential podcast

Being out at work

What's it like coming out at work? How do you do it? Why does it matter? Rachel Nicolson, Partner and joint head of the firm's ALLin LGBTQ+ network, and Andy Tolé, Law Graduate, join Caitlin and Will to discuss being out at work.

In particular, the team discusses the pros and cons of coming out as part of the interview process and how it might help selecting the right firm for you.

What did we talk about?

  • Our favourite queer voices and stories to get into this Pride Month
  • The importance of bringing your authentic self to work 
  • Personal experiences and challenges 

This episode is part of our 2021 series. 

Listen to the episode

Read the transcript

Will Berthelot  This episode of Allens Confidential is produced on the lands of the Gatigal and Wurundjeri peoples. We recognise the traditional owners' continuing connection to lands, waters and culture and pay our respects to elders past and present. We extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples joining us today.

Caitlin Bourke  Thank you so much for joining us, everyone, we have a cracker of an episode for you today. As always, I am joined by my fabulous co-host, Will Berthelot, and today we have two incredible guests: Rachel Nicolson, who is a partner in our Melbourne Disputes team, and Andy Tolé, who is a grad in the same team. Speaking of teams, Will – he is laughing now because I promised I wouldn't say that. Today Will and I are particularly excited because we're talking about a topic very close to our hearts.

Will Berthelot  Today we are talking all things LGBTQI, so coming out at work, our stories and experiences and all the fun we had along the way.

Caitlin Bourke  Pride Month, like all months, is a perfect time to load up your Spotify, Netflix and bookshelves with queer voices and stories and discover some of the best media in the world. Today, with a spin on the old classic, I'm going to kick off by asking our guests for their top LGBTQI content that they are ready, watching or listening to. Andy, let's start with you?

Andy Tolé  Cool, thanks so much for having me, so I am going to go for the obvious TV show option, which is Pose on FX, it's a Ryan Murphy, like, really more specifically, it's written and acted by trans actors, so, like, Janet Mock and Our Lady J are behind the scenes, and then you've got, like, absolute baller actresses like Dominique Jackson, who just, like, absolutely are just fantastic, and it tells the story of the New York ball scene, and kind of like the interpersonal relationships and just how, like, families are formed, and it's just a feast for the eyes, as well as being just absolutely gorgeous. Then, what I'm reading at the moment – well, what I'm re-reading – is The Song of Achilles, which is, I'm a classics tragic, and anything that actually paints Patroclus and Achilles as the lovers they are really sits well with me, so I'm re-reading that, and that's gorgeous and some quality escapism, so that's one by Madeline Miller, which I highly recommend.

Will Berthelot  That sounds much more meaningful and significant than the trash that I read.

Andy Tolé  Oh, no, it's basically a Mills & Boon, I'm not kidding myself here.

Caitlin Bourke  Love it, and, Rachel, what about you?

Rachel Nicolson  Well, I have to say I've read The Song of Achilles a couple of times and it is classy Mills & Boon, that is LGBTQI content, it's also totally hot. In terms of what I'm watching, Master of None, which I just love because it's so rawly funny and awkward, and it sort of reminds me of Schitt's Creek in normalising LGBTQI relationships, but I'm also watching something that is total trash but I just can't resist watching it. I have a soft spot for young adult fiction and I'm watching Shadowhunters.

Will Berthelot  Oh my God, I love Shadowhunters.

Rachel Nicolson  It's so bad, but the main relationship in it is these two gay guys and it's the most gorgeous love story, and it's way more prominent in the TV show than in the books, but it just gives me hope. I think if this is what young adult people are drawn to and watching, it's really quite lovely.

Caitlin Bourke  Yeah, it's really exciting particularly to see young adult target market and children's TV shows and demographics and media changing before our eyes, and we're seeing versions of ourselves in that media that just didn't exist, and I love that, and I love that you love young adult fiction, that's fantastic. We might pivot and start talking about our own experiences now, after that feast of queer media. Will, we all want to bring our full selves to work but sometimes this isn't straightforward for everyone. Will, why does coming out matter to people and why is it relevant at work?

Will Berthelot  Yeah, I think it's a really good question, and something that I thought about before this episode, because I don't think it's intuitive as to why something like sexuality or gender identity might be something that you bring out at work. I think a really important thing to remember is the reasons someone comes out at work is a highly unique and particular decision and there's no right or wrong answer. I guess to tell my story and not give advice what anyone should or shouldn't do. It's a particularly unique experience, in that I don't think that I was really given the choice, in that many people who meet me just kind of know from meeting me that I'm gay, just from maybe the way I walk or the way I talk, or whatever it was, and when I was going through the interview process and going through university and high school, it was something that was told to me rather than something that I got to tell. Going through that process, it wasn't really a discreet decision but it was something I could lean into or something that I could try and reduce. I thought, in that process, this wasn't something that I really wanted to hide, and it's something that I did want to share and I was excited to share. There's many different things you can do in that recruitment process to try and bring up that you are part of the LGBTQ community: you can say that you've volunteered at Mardi Gras, you can say that the firm's values align with yours, those sort of things.

Caitlin Bourke  Yeah, you could wear a mesh vest to the interview.

Will Berthelot  You could wear a mesh vest to the interview, you can do many different things; that one I decided not to do, which is why I'm sitting in this room. I think for the allies listening at home or people who might not understand why it's relevant, some people aren't given the choice and it's something they have to live with and for others who to have the choice, it's an exciting part of your life that you might want to share with people. It does affect lots of things that I do, it does affect how I interact with people, and it is my world. I think there are many reasons why people come out and they're all different but those are the ones for me and I'm really interested also in, I guess, perspectives on why come out at work. Rachel, you come from a totally different context and background to us; why do you think coming out at work is something that's relevant or something that people can or should do?

Rachel Nicolson  Well, I certainly believe that our lawyers do their best work when they bring their authentic selves to work, and if you're pretending that your identity isn't totally what it is or you're having to feel that you hide parts of who you are, parts of your personal life, then that can be a real obstacle to bringing your full self to work. I think, intellectually, it can put a brake on the level of audacious thinking and innovation that can and should occur in the workplace. I also think there's a real degree of distraction and bandwidths emotionally and intellectually that goes into pretending to be something that you're not. If you can remove that and remove the anxiety that goes with that, then you have that bandwidth to do other things with, like enjoy your colleagues in the workplace or get on with your work. Also, just at base, I think it's really important for staff to be happy. A happy workplace is a much nicer place to be for everyone.

Caitlin Bourke  Absolutely, what you said is really poignant about the amount of bandwidth it can take up, Rachel. I know my experience, the one thing I was somewhat surprised about, I think, after I came out for the first time, was I had to keep doing it. It doesn't just finish there, you have to do it again, and again and again. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive and it's very much in line with my personality to be sharing a fact about myself consistently anyway, so it's been great for me. I think that's a really important thing to touch on, for those that are not at that stage yet or perhaps haven't had positive experiences or, you know, we're talking about years and years of systemic oppression here; it's not going to be easy for everyone overnight. That bandwidth can be debilitating in an environment where we want people to be as free and innovative and clever as they can be. Andy, have you got any insights on that?

Andy Tolé  Yeah, I think that, really, I think the moment someone, as an intersection which would provide benefit or, like, added understanding to any issue is always an advantage to any workplace or even just a friendship circle. I think in order to bring your full authentic self, and if you are blessed to have the fantastic intersection of being queer, I think that should be kind of celebrated and respected, and I think going back to that kind of bandwidth point as well, which I think is really salient, is that it just becomes exhausting after a while. I think back to before I came out and just that kind of constant fear or anxiety that was always attendant to those kind of conversations, and then just imagining what that would be like to have that all the time at a workplace, I would hate it. I just think coming out at work is just – it's a privilege to do, but once it's there, it's really a joy.

Will Berthelot  Totally, I still remember from my clerkship, like, pretending to be interested in cricket; like, I can't do that every day.

Caitlin Bourke  Definitely, I think it might be relevant as well for some of those listeners that we have today who perhaps haven't worked in a legal workplace but maybe are about to start navigating a recruitment process either here or at other law firms or just when they leave university. I'm wondering if any of you have any insights as to how you navigated that when you were first leaving university because, I suppose, it's a slightly different position to the one that we're in now, we're kind of soundly in a firm. Did you take those same things with you; Rachel, I'd love to hear about your story at the firm, how was navigating that for you?

Rachel Nicolson  Well, I worked at the Department of Justice for a couple of years before I moved into Allens, and it was a very different workplace, culture and environment. I remember feeling that a lot of people were a lot more sort of neutered in the way they engaged and perhaps not as colourful. That's changed a lot in 20 years of being at the firm. It's just that that was a touch of conservatism as opposed to any resistance to difference. For me, I really didn't have the energy not to come out from the start, and I had a girlfriend, and I remember this came to me second-hand from someone who is a partner now, who said that they were talking about whether somebody should ask me out and then they saw me pashing my girlfriend and they were, like, No, she's not an option. Within about two days, everybody seemed to know, so the work was sort of done for me. I think as well, as you said before, Caitlin, it is an ongoing process, and so, developing skills is really important and you just get that patter down. I still have to come out all the time to my new grad, rotatees, to new clients, to a whole lot of people, and you just get used to it, I guess.

Will Berthelot  Totally; Caitlin, what was your experience like at the firm. We haven't been here for all that long, it's been a couple of years now, but was your experience a positive one and how did you do it?

Caitlin Bourke  Yeah, certainly. I didn't come out during the recruitment process and it wasn't until I was kind of here as a grad a few years later that I did, and I think at that point it was, there was some nerves certainly, but also we had just been thrust into a one in a 100 years pandemic, and there was no way, I was already sitting in a shared bedroom with my sister in a bunk bed. I was at that point bringing so much of myself to work that the fact that I had a long-term partner that was a female was probably low down the list of oversharing. It wasn't an overshare, and immediately people engage with that, and it's only ever been positive, but that's not to say that people don't continue to encounter negative reactions, and that's something that I'm acutely aware of, but I have got the sense here at least that if anyone was to react in a way that was problematic, I would have 1,000 people behind me, and there would be no question as to the support that I would have and the overall response, so I feel very safe here, and it is a privilege to feel safe, and I'm lucky.

Will Berthelot  Andy, you've been through the recruitment process most recently out of all of us; what has your experience been like at other firms, as well as here at Allens?

Andy Tolé  Well, it's been really good; also kind of trainwrecky at times. It just depends where you're interviewing, what firm you're going to. My experience at Allens has been just really, really lovely. From the get-go, I was very open about, like, my identity; it probably helped that my CV kind of had that I had done a lot of – I probably queered it up.

Caitlin Bourke  It was coded.

Andy Tolé  Rainbow font, it was coded like a queer director. I was into queer stuff on my CV for my law school, so that was pretty obvious but then I kind of tended to use it a bit like a sword during some interviews, so I'd kind of really get on the front foot and be, like, is this the kind of place that I would feel comfortable bringing my whole self to, and so I think in my Allens interview, I even said if you are transphobic, if you are homophobic, if you're a misogynist, like, I will say something. They were, like, Oh, okay, which I'm sure it was jarring but it was honest, and since then I've had really good interactions throughout the process; like, at Allens they kind of wheel out the committees and they were, like, here's the whole, like, queer-centred committee, which was really lovely to see early on. I've also had some trainwrecky times: like, I remember one time when I was in an interview and I asked if the firm had a queer group, and the answer from the relatively unprepared partner was Oh, not really, but there are plenty of loud people in the office. So, there's highs and lows.

Caitlin Bourke  A few firms still have a long way to go and I think that's an important one to remember is that we can only speak to our experience, but I'm personally very grateful for the one that I've had.

Will Berthelot  Yeah, definitely the same. Once we've gone through that recruitment process, obviously there's challenges in coming out in that process and, as I said earlier, there's no right or wrong answer. Once you're at the firm and have been employed here, either doing your clerkship or you're in your grad year or you've transferred laterally, does it come up at work and how do we navigate that. Andy, you obviously mentioned coming out in the interview process but what's your experience been like now as a full-time employee in your grad year?

Andy Tolé  It's been really really chill. What I really love so far is that of my four matters that I'm currently on, at least 30-40% of the teams are queer identifying, which I just think is pretty fantastic. It goes kind of beyond just feeling like you're the token person in the office. Like, the other day – I think in the first two months I think I actually had the majority on two of my three matters. One was with Rachel and I, and then an SA, and then another one was, there was another SA and another junior, and so sometimes it was really great to feel like I was in the majority a whole bunch of the time. It's just kind of really uplifting to see not only, you know, queer people at your own level but queer people at senior management and then also, obviously, at Rachel's level, a partner who are actually giving me instructions. So, it really feels just really really intoxicating, it's lovely.

Will Berthelot  That's great. Rachel, from your perspective as a senior employee at the firm, are there things that you do to make employees more comfortable, or how do you see your role as a senior leader at the firm to create a culture like this where people like Andy and Caitlin and I feel comfortable coming to work with our full selves?

Rachel Nicolson  Yeah, there are numerous things we do but there's a lot more than we can do, and an absolute baseline, as an employer, our job is to create a safe workplace, so if people are coming to work feeling unsafe to be themselves, then that's a problem. We know workplace relations law makes very clear bullying and harassment is a safety issue. That's absolute baseline. It's so much beyond that, it's about creating networks where there is not a mentality of tolerating difference but a mentality of celebrating difference. I think we have really moved effectively into that space at Allens for a number of years now. Through having our ALLin LGBTQI network and being really visible with that network, running lots of events, training staff and our lawyers so that they understand homophobic language, they understand inferences that can be drawn from improper language. Just so they're aware, got their eyes open, and really demonstrating leadership, making sure we have allies at very senior levels within the firm who are really committed and out and proud to be allies of our community, so that that creates such a sense of celebration and certainly safety, I think.

Will Berthelot  I think that some people who aren't members of the community might not realise how much this means and how often it comes up. It does tend to come up quite a bit at work, people have photos of their partners or spouses on their desk or people ask what you did on the weekend, and I even remember at the beginning of our grad year, we were asked, it was right after Mardi Gras, and the presenter asked, Did anyone go, and I put up my hand and kind of felt a little embarrassed at first. I was, like, Hang on, I saw, like, half of you there. It is something that comes up a fair bit, and having an environment where you feel comfortable to be honest about that, it makes such a difference, in my opinion.

Caitlin Bourke  Yeah, and I think that environment that we've experienced is actually cultivated over such a long period of time with all of the things that you talk about, Rachel, so it's important to recognise as well that it actually doesn't just happen overnight and it takes hard work and sometimes takes tough conversations, many of which we haven't been privy to because we've been lucky enough to enter the firm in 2020 where those tough conversations don't need to be had every single day anymore. It is really important to keep that work up.

Will Berthelot  Definitely. And there's so many challenges still out there. Yes, marriage equality has been accomplished but that is totally the tip of the iceberg. Even for people who have had relative degrees of privilege and upbringing, being out at work is a really difficult thing to be sometimes, so I think conversations like this are really important to remember that there's still so far to go and so much more we can do but it starts with hard conversations.

Caitlin Bourke  Yeah, and particularly given that we are only a certain cross-section of the LGBTQI community, there's a long way to go. Andy and Rachel, we like to wrap up our episodes by asking if you would have any advice for any of our listeners at home who might be thinking about a career in law – what would you say to your former self, in relation to being an LGBTQ person in law if you could go back to when you first started. Andy, do you want to start?

Andy Tolé  Well, I have only just first started, to be fair; I'm, like, three months into the gig.

Caitlin Bourke  Go back to when you were in recruitment, would you change anything, would you have any advice?

Andy Tolé  I'd certainly say kind of always choose yourself: like, if the vibe isn't right and you're feeling diminished, then you'll straight up think it's not a long-term proposition; there will, and I can almost assure you, certainly be somewhere that celebrates and supports you elsewhere. I just think you just always, always choose yourself because you're the most important person.

Caitlin Bourke  Rachel?

Rachel Nicolson  I absolutely agree with that, I think first and foremost do what you are comfortable with, don't feel that you have to either not come out or come out, that is your call. I would temper that with saying that also give people the benefit of the doubt because people will surprise you, and it's easy to get into those internal stereotyping, internal conversations and they're not always necessarily correct. On a practical note, if you're worried about coming out or how you're going to proceed through an application process or when you started work, reach out for resources. Most firms now have LGBTQI communities, they have diversity and inclusion councils, they have HR who are well versed in these issues, so you can test the waters in safe spaces with members of the community or HR, just as a start, just to see how things might go down, and it might help you just to get a bit more data and a bit more insight into the culture of the place that you're going into or you've started out.

Will Berthelot  Absolutely, I'm definitely guilty of stereotyping people as, like, Oh my God, they're going to be so homophobic, and then they're, like, huge allies.

Caitlin Bourke  And they love you and everything about you. We do like to amp up the drama, though, don't we?

Will Berthelot  We do.

Caitlin Bourke  Thank you so much, Rachel and Andy, for all of your insights this episode. I've personally found it an absolute pleasure and such a privilege to speak to you both about this and I'm sure that many people listening will gain a lot from what you've said, so thank you.

Will Berthelot  If you're at home and interested in learning more about what Allens does in this space, we will have some more information about our pro bono work in this space in the show notes for this episode, and you can also find more information about our people on our website, which includes some profiles for Pride Month.

About the presenters: Caitlin Burke and Will Berthelot

Caitlin is (allegedly) a Lawyer at Allens. She joined the firm as a clerk in 2017, before running away to join the circus for a few years and returning like the prodigal son to the Disputes and Investigations team in 2020. Caitlin studied at the ANU and exercises her right to embarrass herself daily; at work, in the streets and on the dance floor - sometimes simultaneously, but always with a smile.

Currently on secondment with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, Will is a Lawyer in our Disputes and Investigations team and studied at UNSW before joining the firm as a summer clerk in 2017. Will enjoys trying (and failing) to recreate recipes from TikTok and binging trash-tier Netflix series.


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