The Role of Affinity Groups: Perspectives from Arnold & Porter

Affinity Network (1)

Affinity groups have been a core part of law firms’ DE&I programs for some time, but in recent years their role has expanded. Here seven Arnold & Porter attorneys share their experience of belonging to these groups and explain the functions they fulfil, from community building to ally education to engagement with related pro bono matters.

Chambers Associate: Which affinity group(s) do you participate in and how have they impacted your experience at Arnold & Porter?

Maurice Sayeh, Associate: Through A&P's affinity groups, I have developed a tight-knit network and family within the firm. Some of my best experiences at the firm have been through our affinity groups, particularly ACCORD (Attorney Community Championing Our Racial Diversity) and BLAC (Black Lawyers of ACCORD Caucus). ACCORD has assigned me two partner mentors (who have been great resources, both professionally and personally); I have also served as a mentor to our incoming summer associates/first-year associates for BLAC.

Vinita Kailasanath, Partner: As an associate, ACCORD helped me understand some of the unwritten norms of law firms and provided me with candid feedback as I navigated the promotions process.  

Anand Agneshwar, Partner: I directly participate in the ACCORD group for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) but am also involved with other groups in my capacity as Diversity Committee Chair. My participation is to update the groups and the firm generally about D&I initiatives, hold firmwide office hours on D&I issues, and participate in the ACCORD group as a mentor and sounding board.

 

“The shared sense of community has helped me connect with Pride members in different offices or practice groups and has enriched my experience at the firm.

 

Marissa Loya, Associate: I'm an active member and co-chair for the VALOR (Veterans and Affiliates Leadership Organization) affinity group. The sense of community among other VALOR members (veterans and non-veterans alike) has been instrumental to my transition from full-time military service on active duty to full-time work as a civilian attorney. To have a group of simply sincere, approachable, and professional individuals to turn to, many of whom made the same type of transition at one point in time, really made the transition fluid and nearly seamless. It's also that same sense of community that brings fresh ideas to the table when addressing veterans' issues or educating others. For example, in 2020, VALOR co-hosted a panel on "The Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell': Looking Back Almost a Decade Later" and another on "Women in Combat: Looking Back at the Repeal of the Combat Exclusion Policy and the Role of Women in the US Military."

Ben Halbig, Senior Associate: I participate in the Pride affinity group. One of the biggest reasons I came to Arnold & Porter was the substantial number of LGBT attorneys at the firm and in my office (San Francisco). One of the great things about Pride at A&P is that we're pretty well-represented at all levels of seniority (junior associate to senior partner) and across practice groups. The shared sense of community has helped me connect with Pride members in different offices or practice groups and has enriched my experience at the firm. During my first year, the firm hosted a joint retreat for the Pride and ACCORD affinity groups, which facilitated some great connections with attorneys (and led to some new work for me!).  

The Pride group also has an optional mentorship program for new associates joining the firm. I opted into this when I joined A&P as a lateral. My assigned mentor has been a key part of my experience at the firm, helping me navigate the firm's ins and outs and helping me develop as a litigator. We check in about once a month or so, and he's one of my go-to people when I need an outsider's perspective on a tough issue.

Angela Vicari, Partner: I am a co-chair of the Firm's Pride affinity group and a WISE (Women’s Initiative for Success and Empowerment) and First Generation affinity group member. I cannot overstate the importance of these groups to my career and the careers of my colleagues at Arnold & Porter. These affinity groups have provided an opportunity for me to build relationships with attorneys I may not otherwise have had a chance to get to know. I have been fortunate to connect with mentors within the WISE and Pride affinity groups when I was an associate and am now giving back by serving as a mentor to associates within those groups.

 

Chambers Associate: In which ways does your affinity group operate to enhance career growth for members?

Maurice Sayeh: The ACCORD Retreat in 2019 was my first real chance to get to know partners, counsels, and other associates from across the firm. It was a great way to connect and gain exposure to the firm, especially since I was an incoming lateral that year. I have enjoyed the various programming and educational opportunities. The two that came to mind were the conversation with George Takei and our Imposter Syndrome event; the latter was hosted for law students.

 

“Affinity groups provide an additional mentoring network beyond the firm's formal mentoring program, as well as myriad professional development opportunities.”

 

Anand Agneshwar: ACCORD provides a safe space to discuss sensitive topics, to provide one-on-one and group mentoring and sponsorship, training, and work opportunities. We also host a firmwide retreat every two years to provide a forum for training and discussion with firm leadership and clients.  

Vinita Kailasanath: As a partner, I try to "pay it forward" by being a mentor and visibility coach. ACCORD also helped me raise my profile in the firm by providing me with opportunities to form bonds with colleagues across the firm and practice groups.

Angela Vicari: Affinity groups provide an additional mentoring network beyond the firm's formal mentoring program, as well as myriad professional development opportunities. Members serve as panelists for various programs and lead group discussions in a safe space, which provides an opportunity to hone their public speaking skills.

 

Chambers Associate: In which ways does your affinity group interact with others at the firm and why is this interaction important?

Maurice Sayeh: ACCORD and BLAC, together with the firm, have hosted recruiting and summer associate events throughout the year. The firm has also entrusted me to interview diverse candidates for summer associate positions and our 1L Diversity Fellowship. I believe this is important because it allows students to see who A&P really is and not just "talk." It is a chance for students to see the true DNA of the firm and the people that make it an excellent place to work.

 

“Some of the issues we have discussed include equity and racial issues, the retention of diverse attorneys, sponsorship programs, and pro bono efforts that have an immediate impact on the community.”

 

Chambers Associate: What have been some of the issues your affinity group has discussed and acted on over the past year?

Anand Agneshwar: Increasing the number of attorneys of color in leadership positions at the firm, including practice chairs, relationship partners, and office heads; making sure every associate is given a chance to succeed. 

Maurice Sayeh: Some of the issues we have discussed include equity and racial issues, the retention of diverse attorneys, sponsorship programs, and pro bono efforts that have an immediate impact on the community.

Vinita Kailasanath: In the past year, the ACCORD group has been a significant safe and supportive space as our diverse attorneys have suffered intense stressors.

 

Chambers Associate: What did you find to be the most effective ways to address and act upon these issues and why were these approaches successful? 

Anand Agneshwar: We have implemented a sponsorship program for black associates and have instituted a practice group program to require practice chair oversight over the success of attorneys of color, women, and other groups.

Brenda Carr, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer: One of Arnold & Porter's core values is a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and that commitment has internal and external implications. We have increased the frequency within which leadership shares firmwide communications about DEI; this includes emails, town hall meetings, and other modes of communication. Internally, we have expanded firmwide expectations regarding each attorney's individual responsibility to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion over the past year. In addition to several new initiatives focused on improving our representation of Black attorneys at Arnold & Porter, we have increased our collaborations with clients to partner on initiatives that will have a meaningful impact on the retention and advancement of attorneys at the firm.

One of our most successful new initiatives is our D&I Office Hours, which we host once or twice a month; Anand and I host drop-in meetings for anyone interested in talking about DEI topics; these office hours have proven to be an excellent opportunity to connect colleagues from across the firm. Forums that promote connectivity and open communication are so important given our society’s growing propensity towards divisiveness. We recently expanded our D&I team to include a data analyst and a women's initiatives specialist. These new colleagues will enhance our ability to continue to develop and administer the firm's DEI initiatives and projects (with a particular focus on how we measure the success of our programs and hold ourselves accountable). We also expect these new team members to support our continued efforts to retain and advance women attorneys and other professionals across the firm.

 

“Forums that promote connectivity and open communication are so important given our society’s growing propensity towards divisiveness.”

 

Externally, through several partnerships, we have focused on efforts to increase the pipeline of students of color pursuing legal careers; retain and advance Black attorneys at large law firms; and promote equity in education. We partnered with the National Bar Associations to establish an attorney advancement program specifically designed to support the retention and accelerate the advancement of Black attorneys at the nation's largest law firms. The firm also partnered with A Better Chance to launch a three-year partnership to help promote interest in legal careers among diverse students. The firm provides financial and programmatic support to A Better Chance's efforts to substantially increase the number of young people of color who can assume positions of responsibility and leadership in American society. Finally, the firm established a three-year partnership with long-time pro bono collaborator Advancement Project National Office to address systemic inequalities in the United States education system. The partnership will support the Advancement Project National Office's mission to fight systemic racism in schools, which continues to disproportionately impact students of color, as well as low-income students.

 

Chambers Associate: What is on your affinity group's radar now?

Maurice Sayeh: The firm and several affinity groups are especially focused on Stop AAPI Hate, and Black Lives Matter movements. One of the first pro bono matters I worked on last year was the DC BLM march that federal and local law enforcement attacked.

BLAC and ACCORD continue to find ways for our virtual communities to stay connected in our virtual environment. For example, BLAC hosts monthly meetings with attorneys across the firm. ACCORD has always hosted monthly meetings but has now begun to host interoffice meetings (and some dual office meetings such as Houston and Denver) for attorneys to get to know each other more. 

Brenda Carr: APCares and WISE (our parents/caregivers affinity group and our women's affinity group, respectively), are very focused on supporting the retention and advancement of working parents and others with caregiver responsibilities.

 

“The firm and several affinity groups are especially focused on Stop AAPI Hate, and Black Lives Matter movements. One of the first pro bono matters I worked on last year was the DC BLM march that federal and local law enforcement attacked.”

 

Angela Vicari: The PRIDE group is focused on the discrimination of transgender individuals. For example, many state legislators are introducing bills that would limit or prohibit transgender women from competing in women's athletics. On December 21, 2020, a team of attorneys from Arnold & Porter proudly represented seven companies that filed an amicus brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hecox v. Little. This case challenges an Idaho law that bars the participation of transgender women and girls in women's student athletics. We hope to continue to use our advocacy skills to combat this and other types of discrimination.

 

Chambers Associate: Affinity groups have been a core part of many law firms' diversity efforts over the years. How do you feel affinity groups have evolved as the landscape of DEI initiatives and law firms' approaches have developed?

Anand Agneshwar: The need for community and sponsorship has never been greater, and affinity groups at A&P have risen to the challenge. They are more an integral part of the fabric of the firm now, putting on firmwide events, regularly interacting with firm management, and being asked to advise on firm programming. 

Brenda Carr: Affinity groups have evolved and expanded over the years in many ways. Affinity groups were always a space for members to gather and build community with one another. In recent years, while the focus of building community remains, so has a focus on inclusivity and helping educate allies and broader firm audiences about issues impacting underrepresented professionals and marginalized communities. In addition to recruitment, retention, and advancement of attorneys, generally, affinity groups are focused on collaborations and interactions with firm clients and firm alumni. The connectivity with alumni is particularly special to our affinity group members because of the natural extension of their networks developing and/or maintaining relationships with alumni provides. Finding synergies with clients that expand affinity group members' understanding of our clients' business and the roles and responsibilities of in-house counsel is essential to the advancement of attorneys at the firm.   

 

In recent years, while the focus of building community remains, so has a focus on inclusivity and helping educate allies and broader firm audiences about issues impacting underrepresented professionals and marginalized communities.”

 

Chambers Associate: What are a few things affinity groups do that people often are not aware of? 

Maurice Sayeh: Earlier this year, during Black History Month, BLAC and ACCORD members volunteered to serve as volunteer judges for a constitutional law debate for high school students. The high school students, who are predominantly first-generation Americans, are members of a legal education initiative and mentoring program and aspire to become the next wave of legal professionals. The students really appreciated having actual attorneys serve as their judges, and the attorneys enjoyed interacting with students! 

Marissa Loya: Affinity groups can be a fruitful pathway to learning about pro-bono opportunities within a particular affinity group's specific area. For example, other VALOR members exposed me to excellent pro-bono opportunities/areas of law specifically connected to military issues and/or veterans. As a result, I'm currently serving as a Civilian Victims' Counsel for military-connected sexual assault survivors.

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*Additional information about Arnold & Porter’s Affinity Groups, DEI initiatives and the Firm in general can be found at www.arnoldporter.com.