Once considered a social outlet, affinity groups in the legal arena are moving beyond their value to employees who share a common bond. Now, many firms and corporations have begun to realize that these networks offer a wealth of knowledge on various demographic groups that businesses strive to reach.
Originally an outgrowth of corporate diversity efforts, affinity groups have traditionally catered to women and varied ethnic groups. But increasingly, these groups are being developed for even more diverse populations, including the physically challenged as well as gays and lesbians.
In fact, today's affinity groups are becoming so diverse and powerful that many have their own budgets, committees, and subcommittees. They play integral roles in company business, from advising management on key decisions, to helping a member through a crisis, to being an inside resource for job applicants.
Diverse Affinity Groups
Helene Madonick, a partner with Arnold and Porter in Washington, DC, says that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) affinity group at her firm started about seven years ago as an informal social connection among the gay and lesbian lawyers. "At some point, we just thought it would be a good idea to have a more organized entity," says Madonick. "We had something similar for minority lawyers and thought it would help to provide a welcoming environment for [other] lawyers."
Madonick added that in addition to serving a social function, the group was organized to serve as a vehicle for communicating with firm management about issues that were important to their group. The group meets formally about four times a year and, like many other affinity groups, has a lot of regular email conversations on a more informal basis.
"It really does create an environment in which people know that not only are we welcoming gay and lesbian attorneys, but it really says something about our commitment to diversity in general," says Madonick.
The Women's Initiative is a valuable employee network at Holland and Knight, chaired by Debby Barnard in the firm's Boston office. She says that the group is structured in multiple layers, catering to women attorneys in general, but also having specific programs for particular subsets of women, such as those caring for children and those who work part-time. There's even a group for women who are among the more experienced lawyers. "There are different challenges to marketing themselves and learning how to re-energize, support, and cross-sell one another," says Barnard.
Bank of America's Disability Affinity Group was recognized by the bank's Diversity Advisory Council as an official affinity group in 2001. The group is open to employees in the legal department as well other departments within Bank of America. "We came together as a grassroots effort formed by personnel," says chair Andy Arnette. While the group began with just a few members, it has since grown much larger and meets every other week.
Arnette emphasizes that people are often astonished to hear that, "Only 15 percent of the people who have disabilities are born with them, and that one out of every six people will have some type of disability in their lifetime."
His affinity group for the disabled attracts not only disabled employees, but those who are caring for aging or disabled relatives, volunteering with the disabled, and those who want to learn about living with a disability.
Not Just Lunch
Today's affinity groups are making a big impact on their workplaces, helping employers make better business decisions relating to different segments of their clientele.
Impacting marketing, client relations, and recruitment decisions, employee affinity groups go beyond informal lunch gatherings to extend into the foundation of the workplace. Holland and Knight's Barnard says that the Women's Initiative tackles larger issues on a firm wide basis, including recruiting and retaining women lawyers. The group was charged with helping to draft a policy to develop creative work opportunities for women who have family commitments, allowing the firm to retain more women lawyers. For affinity groups, personal and professional success has come through a combination of self awareness and understanding the ways of the world, says Scott Morgan, co-chair of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Friends (GLBTF) affinity group at Thomson West in Minnesota.
"With our group, we've been so focused on our company diversity goals and doing great things that we need to remember to have fun too," Morgan says. "I've actually been surprised at how extensively the group is being utilized within the company. We've been expanding our markets and making sure that we are seizing all of the business opportunities."
Morgan added that this group helps co workers and management understand the gay community. He points out that if you don't even know what questions to ask, it makes it hard to expand your client base.
Recruiting new legal talent from diverse backgrounds is a must for many firms and corporations. Prior to accepting a job, applicants sometimes contact the relevant affinity group to find out about a firm or company. This fact alone proves that these organized gatherings are also important to potential employees, and can make a difference in the overall perception of a particular workplace environment.
Madonick's group is actively involved in recruitment efforts within gay communities. "We reach out to LGBT organizations at law schools at which our firm recruits on campus, and we're involved in our summer associate program." She mentioned that members of the affinity group serve on just about all of the committees in the firm, including the hiring and policy committees.
Jenner and Block's Women's Forum was formed about two years ago to create opportunities and development among the women attorneys, as well as to serve as a point of contact for management on various women's issues. Partner Susan Levy, who heads the Women's Forum and has been with the Chicago-based firm for 22 years, says, "What we've done with the Women's Forum is to make it an institutional part of the firm with its own budget, management, and steering committee. When any issues relating to women come up, I get called," says Levy, who also sits on the firm's management committee.
According to Charlotte Wager, the partner at Jenner and Block in charge of attorney development, people at the firm recognize that the Women's Forum is about more than just lunch. "Although we want to provide that kind of a social opportunity, we also want to foster the kind of environment where they feel comfortable solving problems, whether it's legal problems, or work environment, or home/work balance issues," says Wager.
"What we've done with the Women's Forum is to make it an institutional part of the firm with its own budget, management, and steering committee. When any issues relating to women come up, I get called."
"One of our goals is to help with retention," Wager continues. "We have given women an opportunity to succeed here, and we give them advice and opportunities for networking and mentoring which they otherwise may not have had."
Both Levy and Wager say that groups such as the Women's Forum are important and have a positive impact on their firm. "One of our fundamental goals is to provide excellent service to our clients, and along with that comes the need to make sure that we're available on demand for our clients," says Wager. "That can be a challenge without the right network, especially for women who have families."
The Disabled Affinity Group at Bank of America strives to provide valuable information about accessibility to business units throughout the bank, which results in better services for customers as well as employees. Arnette says that his group helped to implement Universal Design Concept for new bank facilities to make it easier for people who are physically disabled. Universal Design Concept is the design of products and environments that can be used by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design.
"For people with low vision, we have made accommodations with ZoomText, which blows up the computer font. Our group works to get the necessary technology to make everyone more productive and make them succeed," says Arnette.
Through research, the group discovered that some things aren't accessible to blind people. "We've had buy-in with executives so if a problem arises, we fix it right then. We're more proactive than reactive," comments Arnette.
Bank of America's Parents Affinity Group is a resource for all parents and managers at the bank. Tony Squillacioti in the Boston office, who heads the group, says, "One thing that we found is that we can be a common denominator with the other affinity groups. Whether one is African American, Latino, gay, lesbian, or disabled, all of these groups include parents who experience many of the issues we address."
The Parents Affinity Group's activities include presenting seminars open to all associates, covering such topics as adoption resources, early childhood development, child care options, adolescent behavior, financing higher education, and maintaining a healthy work/life balance. The parenting affinity group hosts between 5 to 10 seminars per year with an average annual attendance of more than 800 employees.
"In addition to the speaker-led series of seminars, we publish a quarterly newsletter featuring parenting tips, networking opportunities, and links to a variety of other resources both within the bank and external," says Squillacioti. "Parents seem to appreciate accessing this kind of support in the workplace, and we like to think any lessening of stress we can contribute will help these associates feel better about their jobs."
Sometimes affinity groups discover the need for additional networks. An offshoot of the Parents Affinity Group is the Elder Care Affinity Group, specializing in providing education and support to those who are or will be caring for elderly relatives and friends.
Not only do companies benefit from sanctioned affinity groups, but through these groups lawyers gain additional opportunities to network and develop new skills, ranging from career development to stress management.
"One of the things that we like to do is instill diversity within the bank so that everyone is educated on diversity and inclusiveness," says Arnette. "There's sometimes a perception that if you have a disability you can't be successful and won't be promoted within the company." Arnette emphasizes that Bank of America is very inclusive and has employees with disabilities at all levels of the bank.
Thomson West's Morgan says the company offers ongoing training for all employees, which results in opportunities for its GLBTF affinity group to host discussions on topics such as hate crimes and, more recently, the growing irrelevance of sexual orientation in legal practice and the law.
Being part of an affinity group also gives employees a chance to talk with coworkers about topics that are important to them. "Sometimes women have talked to Charlotte and me about issues that they have because the Women's Forum gives them a forum to address their concerns," Jenner and Block's Levy says. She gets calls from women attorneys in different areas of the firm who want to express their concerns, and it gives her a chance to have lunch with women that she otherwise might not have met.
"It's a two-way street with the Women's Forum," says Wager. "It allows us to put programs on for the associates, giving them some additional skills that they need, and it allows them to bring to us their concerns."
"We've had regular lunches with all of our women associates and partners, had outside speakers, brought in consultants, and met with women clients who have given all of our women attorneys tips on networking," adds Levy.
According to Barnard, her group at Holland and Knight likes to groom and cultivate the next generation of women leaders. "We do a variety of things and there are always new ideas. Our Rising Star program is an intense leadership and economic development program that we have for prospective women leaders starting one year before they are eligible to become a partner," says Barnard. "They are immersed in the fundamental working of our firm. We also do a series of video conference calls that focus on women and how to balance their lives successfully, and the trials and tribulations associated with that."
Reaching out and being involved in the community is another important aspect of many affinity groups, as their members often volunteer on boards, serve as mentors, and represent their companies or firms at festivals and fundraisers. In many cases, affinity groups have given their employers an organized means of reaching out to the community, and their unique perspectives have been tapped for business expansion and community outreach plans.
"I consider this group to be a volunteer organization," says Morgan, whose group has participated in the Minnesota AIDS Walk for the past three years, earning recognition as the number one and the number three corporate team. "We were also the first team to have company matching funds. It was a wonderful program," says Morgan.
Participating in Lavender Law, an annual conference for gay and lesbian lawyers, was another way that the affinity group at Thomson West reached out to the LGBT community last year. "Since the conference was in the Twin Cities, we really wanted to ramp up efforts on the home turf. It tied into our goals and was highly successful," says Morgan.
Levy and Wager agree that community outreach is important, and encourage the women in their group to get involved by networking and getting out of the office and into the community. "We've had several community efforts here, including a cocktail party for a Palatine safe house for battered women and a volunteer day for their resale store," says Levy.
"The staff has such a history of working in the civic community group, and the Women's Forum has been able to take on specific women's issues in the community," adds Wager. Many associates in the Young Women's Leadership Group sit on the boards of various groups within the community. Holland and Knight's Women's Initiative helps local women's shelters. "We've sponsored a toiletry drive, where we deliver hundreds of bags of toiletries to places like women's shelters," says Barnard. The group is also involved in other community non profit local events that allow women to get together and help the community.
Teaming up with other groups to become an even stronger force in the community is common with some affinity groups. For example, Levy says that the Chicago Foundation for Women has come to the Women's Forum to discuss a variety of outreach programs.
Arnette's disability affinity group held a disability awareness fair, teaming up with a dozen agencies and inviting employees and the public to attend. "At the fair we had a Para Olympian to speak about Bank of America's commitment to diversity," says Arnette.
Additionally, the Parenting Affinity Group, along with other resource groups and the Bank of America Foundation, allocates more than $85,000 per year to community non-profit agencies.
Pro bono work is another way some affinity groups help out in the community. "Arnold and Porter is committed to pro bono work on a general level and within the gay and lesbian group," says Madonick. "We staff a legal clinic for people with AIDS and have been doing pro bono work for the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal." Madonick noted that Arnold and Porter has won awards for its pro bono efforts.
From their origins as social gatherings, affinity groups have grown to become an integral part of law firm and corporate recruiting and marketing goals. As companies continue to strive toward developing a workplace that mirrors their customer base, affinity groups will play a front line position in monitoring their companies' impact.
Carisa Crawford Chappell is a freelance writer based in Bowie, Maryland.
Minority Affinity Groups: A Key Diversity Component
By Theresa Cropper
Piper Rudnick LLP is at the infancy stage of developing minority affinity groups. The firm will hold its first annual retreat April 7–9, 2005 for diverse attorneys who are also members of its various affinity groups. Designed to build relationships and develop skills, the Thursday to Saturday event will include a breakfast, reception, and dinner as well as smaller sessions for specific affinity groups and practice areas. Internal and external experts will conduct workshops on such topics as:
- How to Work a Room,
- What Every Associate and Partner Should Know,
- Making a Pitch to a Client, and
- How to Expand Business from an Existing Client.
As indicated by the firm, it's important that all affinity groups meet as a collective. When these practitioners, who are also members of the firm's minority affinity groups, gather they will share "war stories" on how they navigated their careers. The agenda will also include a keynote speaker, a meeting with the firm's national leadership, teambuilding and networking sessions, and workshops on "soft skills" development. Additionally, each affinity group will have the opportunity to meet at the retreat, including African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and gays and lesbians. Professor David Wilkins from Harvard Law School will be the luncheon speaker.
Piper Rudnick hopes that this first retreat builds a foundation of support for diverse attorneys and minority affinity groups. At future retreats, the firm plans to build upon skills development and networking, and identify plans for cooperative diversity efforts with clients.
Theresa Cropper is the national director of diversity at Piper Rudnick LLP.
From the March/April 2005 issue of Diversity & The Bar®