Law firm’s “courageous conversations” help staff discuss taboo issues

Woolford: Giving people the power to speak

A national law firm has developed an initiative called ‘Courageous Conversations’ to help staff discuss taboo issues such as menopause, mental health, disability and discrimination.

Grace Woolford, a practice assistant at Nottingham-headquartered Browne Jacobson, who helped organise the sessions, said that, as well as improving the firm’s culture, they had led to practical improvements, such as making the office accessible to disabled people.

Ms Woolford said the lunchtime sessions, which began in the spring of 2021, were increasingly popular, with up to 150 people logging on as people from all parts of the firm shared personal stories and learned from each other.

The sessions begin with an introduction and presentation on a particular issue, with facts and figures, followed by a discussion involving four to five employees with personal experience of the issue and a moderator.

The audience can comment and share their own experiences through live chat, which is monitored.

Ms Woolford said the session she led followed a “horrible” attack she experienced last year when wearing a rainbow Covid mask on a tram in Nottingham, where she works in the inquests section of the health, advisory and litigation team.

Ms Woolford, a cisgender pansexual woman, said she was physically attacked by school children in uniform and felt “let down” by the police response.

This included being turned away by British Transport Police, who told her to ring Nottingham Police via the intercom at Nottingham Station and did not open the door.

The attack was later recorded and the local police came round to take a statement but failed to obtain CCTV footage of the incident before the tram company’s one-week deadline.

“I was angry about that. It could have been a learning opportunity for those kids, which was missed. I am not a visibly queer person and it made me angry to think of what other people had experienced.”

Ms Woolford said she had channelled her anger into her work with Courageous Conversations, while Browne Jacobson’s Pride Network had been a “massive source of support”.

She said one of the sessions, on deafness, had involved a sign language interpreter and encouraged people to go to British sign language training sessions.

Another, linked to Disability History Month, led to a discussion about the accessibility of the law firm’s office spaces and a review by the office team.

A sink was installed in the kitchen space of the new Birmingham office that is height adjustable, heavy glass doors which were difficult to open were removed and the flush mechanism on the toilets changed to ensure they were easy to use by disabled people.

The sessions also helped build up the law firm’s networks, such as race and ethnicity, and helped staff “bring their whole selves” into work.

As well as the Courageous Conversations themselves, Ms Woolford said there were related drop-in sessions, which were not recorded and designed to be a “safe space” to talk about a wide range of subjects.

“It’s about hearing from as many people as possible and giving people the power to speak and know that what they say will be valued.”

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