How to be an effective ally – Latham & Watkins

Ally

Allyship has become an ever-prominent model for helping to make the legal sector more diverse and inclusive. As Latham's seasoned lawyers explain, there are many forms allyship can take, so read on if you want to know the various ways you can support others as an ally.

Chambers Associate: What motivates you to be an ally? 

Kevin Andrew Chambers, partner and global chair of the diversity leadership committee: I’m motivated to be an ally because I know that I didn’t get to where I am alone. None of us did. We all benefit from allies — whether they are mentors, sponsors, or just those who made space for you in the moment. I firmly believe that every time you support someone else, whatever the level of support, it is meaningful and can have a positive impact on their career.  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro, associate: I grew up in a very “non-diverse” environment — I barely had any contact with other cultures or different backgrounds to my own. So, when I first started seeing different cultures (as a teenager), I took joy in meeting people from diverse backgrounds, countries, and cultures, as if it were something “exotic” that fascinated me. Then, as I grew older, I understood that those “unusual” differences are not “unusual” at all, and that, in fact, we all have unique perspectives to contribute. I also take pride in being myself and celebrate my own differences from others (even if we share a similar background, ethnicity, or sexual orientation) and enjoy it — being “plain” or just like everyone else is so “mainstream”! Jokes aside, I find all these differences are so inspirational, so I would say that is my (selfish) motivation to be an ally.  

  

“To me, the right question is not why be an ally—it’s why not?” 

  

Belinda Lee, partner: To me, the right question is not why be an ally — it’s why not? As you get more senior at the firm, you inherently have the ability to help guide and advise less experienced, diverse attorneys who are sitting where you were ten or 20 years ago. They may come from a background that is unlike yours, and it’s our obligation as partners to mentor all of the young associates who have entrusted us with the crucial first years of their career. 

Andrew Clark, associate: Being a gay man and, therefore, being part of a group which has historically needed, and, in many respects, still needs as many allies as it can get, supporting others comes as second nature. Beyond my personal perspective, it is just the right thing to do as a good human being! 

Tom Evans, partner: As a community, a profession, and a firm, we have a challenge. My and our family members, friends, and colleagues who share diverse characteristics are underrepresented in our profession and in our firm. That is a problem for me as part of those communities.  

That my family members and colleagues have surmounted personal and professional challenges in excess of those that have faced me, because of their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or other diverse characteristic, is not fair. Nor is it fair that our generation of professionals, aware of the issues and impediments, should decide not to support initiatives through actions.  

As an added bonus to it being the right thing to do, from a business perspective it makes sense. The literature is clear: diverse teams produce better outcomes. 

  

CA: What have you found most rewarding about being an ally? 

Tom Evans: As an ally it’s incredibly rewarding to share in the positive energy generated by appreciating diversity and affirming a common goal. The more people who no longer need to hide aspects of their character, the more people whose perspectives are acknowledged as being legitimate, the higher the octane of the teams and communities in which we participate. 

  

…in the legal profession, where law is not an exact science, different opinions, interpretations, or perspectives are the best tools we can have to be fantastic lawyers.” 

  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: Having the opportunity to be close to people different to me is hugely enriching — it gives you the chance to learn from different points of view and diverse ways of seeing life. For example, even a minor nuance in an expression (for non-native English speakers) reveals another way of understanding. Embracing perspectives from a variety of people and different ways to see life is a gift. In the legal profession, where law is not an exact science, different opinions, interpretations, or perspectives are the best tools we can have to be fantastic lawyers.  

Andrew Clark: Watching others follow the example set by the allies who came before them — just like I did. It seems to be getting easier generation by generation, which is very rewarding to watch. 

What’s more, the depth of collegiality and professional relationships you develop when you take the time to support someone as an ally is very personally rewarding. 

Kevin Andrew Chambers: Seeing those whom I’ve supported succeed. This is especially rewarding when I did not initially know the person well and had the chance to see them make the most of a given opportunity. It’s a two-way street: I really enjoy making space for other voices and perspectives because I always find that I learn something new. Great ideas are often proposed that had not occurred to me. These new ideas and perspectives push me to be more creative, which benefits my practice and allows me to deliver the highest-level service to my clients.

  

CA: What have been some challenges or lessons you’ve learned about being an effective ally?  

Tom Evans: Accepting that allies have a legitimate role contributing to and showing leadership around diversity initiatives is something that took me a long time to get comfortable with. As a white, heterosexual male, I initially felt like an imposter when attending my first Latham & Watkins Diversity Leadership Academy, but I learnt a lot. And I got a lot of support from diverse attorneys who appeared to love that I was there: listening, sharing, and participating. That academy taught me that articulating the diversity message is important but listening and modelling the right behaviors is even more so. 

  

“My curiosity stems from a belief that we all have unique experiences and interesting stories to tell, and we should seek to learn about those things because not only is it enjoyable, it also makes it easy to deepen relationships and build more inclusive workplaces.” 

  

Kevin Andrew Chambers: It may be because I’m a litigator, but I enjoy asking questions. And this extends to when I’m getting to know others, especially those who have a different background or life experience than mine. Of course, every conversation shouldn’t be a deposition, but I’m genuinely curious about others and enjoy learning about who they are, what led them to being a lawyer, and what adventures, big or small, they’ve had along the way. My curiosity stems from a belief that we all have unique experiences and interesting stories to tell, and we should seek to learn about those things because not only is it enjoyable, it also makes it easy to deepen relationships and build more inclusive workplaces.  

Belinda Lee: I’ve learned that being an effective ally starts with getting to know people on a more personal level. You can do that by being open, listening genuinely and, most importantly, by not making assumptions about other people. 

  

“I’ve learned to recognize that I have privileges others don’t and remember to always acknowledge those privileges and their consequences.” 

  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: Getting over the unconscious biases is tough and, unfortunately, this is not something that can be fixed overnight (if only it could!). When we try to lead by example and act as consistently with our beliefs as we can, we can also realize that we actually have unconscious biases that ultimately contradict what we are trying to protect. For example, I am a strong believer that family responsibilities should be borne equally by both parents and that neither of the parents should be forced to choose between family and career. And yet my results from an implicit bias test on the relationship between gender and career question my own understanding of my views. While this can prove to be challenging (ultimately, the foundation of all these biases is strong and based on a number of demographic and cultural factors), I prefer to acknowledge them and consciously work harder to tackle those implicit biases.  

Andrew Clark: Remembering that just because I experienced something in one way (as a gay, white, cisgendered man), doesn’t mean that others in need of allies experienced the same in similar circumstances. Put another way, I’ve learned to recognize that I have privileges others don’t and to remember to always acknowledge those privileges and their consequences. 

  

CA: How do you signify to others that you’re an ally in word or action? 

Belinda Lee: One of the things I try to do is make sure that all of the associates on my teams have the space to speak and participate during meetings. I try to make sure that the discussion is not dominated by any one person, and that everyone has the opportunity to weigh in with their thoughts and creative ideas. 

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: I try to be as open as I can and make sure that more junior lawyers know that I am available to help out and see me as a person they can trust if they face any issue. I still see that learning the legal profession is “traditional” in the sense that it requires observing and working with those who are most experienced. Hence, I try to make available what I have learned so far to those who are just starting. For example, small actions like being friendly when you bump into a colleague in the cafeteria or talking to a colleague I’ve never met before in the office and at firm events, are usually how people start getting to know who you are. 

  

Allyship can take so many different forms (e.g., from volunteering to participating in a mentoring program to being more involved in other internal affinity groups or committee work).” 

  

Kevin Andrew Chambers: I chair our firm’s global Diversity Leadership Committee (DLC), so it’s literally part of my job to be an ally in word and action. But, separate and apart from being chair of the DLC, I make space for other voices and perspectives in meetings. I also make sure to give credit where it’s due. And I have a complete “open door/phone/email” policy. Our lawyers know that they can always reach out to me if they ever want to chat about navigating the profession or strategies for setting themselves up for success, including when they are “the only” on a particular team or in a particular situation.  

Tom Evans: By participating and encouraging others to participate. Good leadership is about consistently modelling the right behavior. In the context of diversity, for me that’s about consciously seeking to interrupt unconscious bias particularly during recruitment activities and when allocating work; participating in the Parent Affinity Group and in the Women Lawyers Affinity Group; acting as a mentor as part of the Women Enriching Business initiative; participating in the Diversity Leadership Academy and the Women’s Leadership Academy; and, when leading training initiatives within the firm, agitating for consideration of diversity perspectives. It’s about turning up. Consistently. 

Andrew Clark: Being one of the global co-leaders of one of Latham’s affinity groups, which are among the vehicles through which Latham advances its diversity and inclusion agenda, is a pretty good signpost. In addition, I try to always be approachable and, most importantly, ask lots of questions in a sensitive and supportive manner. I take the time to learn what a particular person or group wants from an ally (rather than assume I already know). 

  

CA: What would your advice be to someone who may already be acting as an ally in informal ways and who wants to participate more formally as an ally at your firm?  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: Being an “informal” ally is already a big part of the work — despite that we often refer to allyship somehow as “informal.” I’d probably recommend speaking up and not being afraid to reach out to other “formal” allies and let them know you want to be involved in allyship initiatives “more formally.”  

  

“Informal relationships are often as powerful and sometimes more powerful than formalized ones.” 

  

Allyship can take so many different forms (e.g., from volunteering to participating in a mentoring program to being more involved in other internal affinity groups or committee work). So, I’d recommend reaching out to someone who helps lead our diversity efforts or to other firm leaders to ask for guidance on which allyship roles might be a good fit. The more commitment to allyship an organization can generate the better — as this is something that is built by each of the individuals comprising the firm. 

Kevin Andrew Chambers: First, I would say, “Thank you!”. Informal relationships are often as powerful and sometimes more powerful than formalized ones. Second, I would say that we would love for you to get involved here at Latham. We have so many different ways to formally serve as an ally and get involved in our diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. Whether it’s joining an affinity group that you don’t self-identify with, attending a training to learn more about a particular diversity topic, participating in our Diversity Leadership Academy or Women’s Leadership Academy, or volunteering to serve as a mentor for someone from an underrepresented group — there are a whole host of ways to get more formally involved as an ally. 

Andrew Clark: Join the firm affinity group that you want to be an ally for and attend (and be an active participant in) affinity group events, whether in person or online.  

  

CA: In your experience, do people tend to become allies to one traditionally underrepresented group or to many? 

Kevin Andrew Chambers: I see both. Sometimes, the desire to become an ally stems from a personal experience or circumstance. For example, I have seen folks join an affinity group because, while they did not personally identify with that group, someone close to them does, such as a partner, child, or friend. Others join as many groups as they can because they understand the importance of allyship generally and that support is valued by all groups. 

Andrew Clark: As a general ruleallyship breeds broader inclusivity and, as a result, people who are allies tend to assume that role with a number of traditionally underrepresented groups. 

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: I feel this is more about attitude — that is, each of us finding our respective way of tackling what we think is not fair. While it is true that a lot of people who come from a traditionally underrepresented group become allies (either to their own groups or others), it is also true that other people who may not be regarded as “diverse” also are allies for many other reasons (e.g., they have seen the difficulties that their sisters or daughters or colleagues — as women or LGBTQ+ individuals or other minorities — may face when building a successful career). 

I believe that we all should carry the weight of becoming allies (it would be unfair only to expect this from those who are underrepresented!). Both “categories” of allies are relevant and provide lots of benefits. Anyone — no matter their background — can be an ally and add perspective.  

  

“The most effective way to be an ally is to always have an open door and a welcoming attitude.” 

  

CA: If you are from a traditionally underrepresented group, how have you benefitted from ally relationships? What prompted you to seek allies? 

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: In my case, I have benefitted (and continue to seek advice) from both types of allies in many ways — sometimes it has been about how to deal with the concern that people might prefer the advice of a male lawyer, sometimes it’s about work-life balance, and sometimes it’s about how to navigate my own professional career.  

Andrew Clark: I have benefited greatly from allyship. Two more senior Latham attorneys, both older straight men, who attended my wedding, continue to support me as my husband and I embark on the journey of starting a family, and as I progress professionally at Latham. 

Kevin Andrew Chambers: I have benefitted from formal and informal ally relationships throughout my career — too many times to count. And I have been fortunate enough to have been sought out by allies, rather than to seek them out. The real power of the ally relationship is when the ally actively seeks to create the relationship. 

  

CA: How can people be most effective as allies at different seniority levels?  

Belinda Lee: The most effective way to be an ally is to always have an open door and a welcoming attitude. This is especially true the more senior you become. As for particular examples, effective allyship really comes down to making sure you’re being thoughtful, investing in all associates, and spreading around work opportunities. 

  

“A culture of inclusion requires us all to be allies and supporters for each other.” 

  

Kevin Andrew Chambers: Everyone can be an ally, from the most junior lawyers to the most senior. As a very junior lawyer, allyship may consist of redirecting conversation back to a colleague after they are interrupted, chiming in to acknowledge that a colleague contributed a great idea, or participating in a recruiting event for diverse law students. As a senior lawyer, when you have the ability to offer more opportunities to others — whether it’s work assignments, mentorship, or introductions to others — allyship means being thoughtful about how you distribute those opportunities and always looking for ways to include those who are just as talented, but seem to be less connected or engaged. Ultimately, allyship means looking for the potential in everyone and trying to do what you can to find opportunities for them to shine — and also recognizing that people shine in different ways.  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: We can benefit from different allies in many ways. Usually a more experienced lawyer can help with matter-specific situations, a particular supervisor situation, or any cultural issues. Other times it is just as helpful to discuss those points with a colleague. My recommendation would be to not be afraid to reach out to your colleagues (in the broadest sense, including at all seniority levels, and even those who are not within your department, practice groups, or office), and foster a colleague relationship in which you feel free to discuss any issue about work, career development, or any experience (cultural, social, etc.). 

Andrew Clark: Tone is 100% set from the top in all environments. At our firm, the tone from the top could not be clearer: diversity and inclusion are fundamental. People who are in more senior roles (from the managing partner to the mid-level associate who supervises our most junior team members) seek to foster diversity and inclusion. 

  

CA: How does your organization promote allyship 

Belinda Lee: Latham is absolutely committed to building a fully inclusive culture, and I’ve seen that commitment grow over the last 20 plus years that I’ve been at the firm. A culture of inclusion requires us all to be allies and supporters for each other. We have worked hard to weave inclusion into every level of our firm so that it’s just part of our DNA and is expected of all colleagues at Latham. 

  

“…learning to make a habit of working and being around those who are not like you will make it much easier when you start to work.” 

  

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: Latham promotes and puts a lot of effort into allyship in many ways. From all the initiatives, my favorites are the mentoring programs both at a local level and within the global affinity groups. These programs allow younger lawyers to invite a mentor to an activity of their choice. Meeting a more experienced lawyer for an activity that is not necessarily work-related (and often outside the office) generally allows for a more candid discussion and increases engagement between colleagues. In addition, I especially enjoy the global affinity groups’ mentoring programs because they encourage younger lawyers to proactively choose a more senior lawyer to invite to an activity. As the program has multiple events, junior lawyers can benefit from multiple relationships by inviting one senior lawyer per month.  

Kevin Andrew Chambers: We are focused on creating a culture of true inclusion and belonging at Latham. Central to this culture is encouraging, and really expecting, all of our colleagues to serve as allies for each other. Last year, we implemented a firmwide Inclusion Initiative, which was designed to broaden engagement in advancing D&I at our firm, and gave everyone simple actions to incorporate into their daily routines to build more inclusion on their teams, in their offices, and ultimately, at the firm. This year, we will be launching a new formal initiative focused on allyship. Our goal is to encourage everyone at the firm to be allies for one other, which includes, among other things, actively supporting and standing up for others, learning rather than assuming, and understanding your privilege. Through this campaign, we will provide practical steps on how to be an ally, highlight examples of allyship at the firm, and facilitate opportunities for everyone to engage in meaningful dialogue about D&I and what it means to be an ally.  

Andrew Clark: Too many examples to list them all, so here are a few: 

  • Allies are encouraged to join affinity groups, and, once members, to attend and participate in events. 

  • All employees (including allies) are offered the opportunity to participate, throughout the year, in various outward displays of allyship. In 2019 for Pride month, the LGBTQ Affinity Group offered all employees worldwide the opportunity to display a pride flag at their desks. The engagement was incredible, with over 1,500 of our colleagues worldwide opting to display a flag (many of which remain displayed today!).  

  

CA: How can diverse attorneys find allies within the profession and among their clients and communities? 

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: Finding yourself an ally can either happen spontaneously when you put yourself out there (it would seem pretty rare that an ally would randomly turn up and knock on your office door to offer advice) or via a colleague relationship that develops slowly over time. Perhaps a supervisor (or a client) can become an ally after you’ve worked with that person on a number of matters. Either way, allies tend to make themselves noticed and make clear that they are there to help, yet it takes the other person to notice them and ask for their advice.  

So, be proactive, attend internal or external events, and get to know your colleagues, peers, and supervisors. Doing these things will allow you to identify more than one person that can be an ally for you!  

Andrew Clark: By being their authentic and honest selves. 

  

“Be honest about your own unconscious biases and the assumptions you make. Don’t be defensive — we all have biases and assumptions that stem from our upbringings and our life experiences.” 

  

CA: What can students do now to begin their path toward becoming an effective ally? 

Blanca Vázquez de Castro: My only advice would be to remove barriers that constrain a colleague’s potential to succeed. Barriers take many forms, but most often we just need to identify whether there is something or someone missing (e.g., a colleague who has not been invited to an activity, a point of view from a person from a different background, a perspective from a different group, etc.) and include them. Sometimes this is hard, just because we already have our own study groups, or we are used to hanging out with our own friends. However, learning to make a habit of working and being around those who are not like you will make it much easier when you start to work (as there will be times when you will find yourself with supervisors, supervisees, clients, or opposing counsel who are different to you — even when you both share a similar background, ethnicity, or sexual orientation).  

As another example, I would encourage students to be curious about other students, involve them in their activities, and build relationships across differences. This will also allow them to learn (and appreciate) that everyone has their own interesting and unique life experiences from which others can benefit. 

Andrew Clark: Ask questions but more importantly listen to the answers. Avoid lazy assumptions or clichés.  

Kevin Andrew Chambers: Reflect on how you view others. Be honest about your own unconscious biases and the assumptions you make. Don’t be defensive — we all have biases and assumptions that stem from our upbringings and our life experiences. Acknowledging that, have the courage to challenge your biases and assumptions. Maybe you don’t know everything. Seek to learn about other people and get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. In fact, if you’re uncomfortable or feeling uncertain when meeting or building a relationship with someone new, you’re probably on the right path to being a great ally! And don’t worry, you’ll soon relish the experience of not being able to identify with someone on the surface, but looking forward to learning about them and knowing that in nearly every case you will find a commonality in the most unexpected way.  

 

 

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