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May 10, 2013 Articles

The Business Case for Launching an Affinity Group

By Amie E. Needham


A spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something.
A similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship, esp. a resemblance in structure between animals, plants, or languages.

We all gravitate toward "like" things. It only makes sense that we would look for that in our work lives as well. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) attorneys, it's likely that we haven't all felt the warm embrace of a gay or lesbian senior partner, welcoming us into "the club" in a way that we envisioned law firm life happening. Let's face it, though—law firm life rarely happens the way we think it will happen, and it certainly doesn't happen the way it does on television.

As the Human Rights Campaign Workplace Equality Index tells us, law firms are becoming more and more accepting (even embracing!) of LGBT attorneys within their ranks. But acceptance isn't always enough. Sometimes to understand what it's like to be an LGBT attorney in a firm, you have to actually be an LGBT attorney in that firm. That's where an affinity group can be a real asset. If your firm doesn't already have an LGBT affinity group, it might be time to think about forming one. And it only takes one person to get that ball rolling. You could be that person. So here are a few ideas to help get your affinity group on its way.

Identify the Need
If you find yourself wishing that your firm had an LGBT affinity group, you've likely identified yourneed, but is it the need of any other individuals in your firm? Are there any other LGBT attorneys or staff working in your office (or in any of your firm's other offices)? A critical mass is important for convincing anyone at your firm that an affinity group would be valuable. A critical mass can be just a few people, but you'll need to identify others who might be interested in what you're trying to start. Many firms have community posting boards that allow employees to solicit information and interest in a particular cause. Think about using this type of forum to put the idea out there and gauge interest in forming an affinity group. You know your firm best: Think about how ideas and support are generated and disseminated and capitalize on those methods of communication.

Form a Core Group
After you've identified other LGBT individuals in your office, consider forming a core group to flesh out the needs, concerns, and interests of individuals who would form part of the affinity group. Not everything needs to be decided at once, but there are two issues to consider. First, will your affinity group comprise attorneys only or will support staff be included? Second, will straight allies be allowed to participate as members of the affinity group? Both of these questions are important for shaping the makeup of your group. More on this below.

Approach Your Diversity Coordinator or HR Department
It's possible, depending on the dynamic of your firm, that this is the first place you should start. Larger firms often have more formalized processes for recognizing its affinity groups. Oftentimes there are guidelines or even rules that individuals seeking group recognition must follow. If your firm has a diversity coordinator, he or she will likely be able to answer any of your questions regarding the process involved. If your firm doesn't have a diversity coordinator, the human resources department is the next best bet. If there are procedures in place for seeking company recognition of a group, your HR representative probably has the answers.

Determine Membership Parameters
As mentioned above, there are several questions that usually arise in the law firm context that can pose unique challenges when it comes to determining the membership of your group. For instance, how will the issues facing LGBT attorneys and support staff differ? Do you want to focus your group on the promotion of the LGBT attorneys, including advancement to partnership and business-development opportunities? If so, is there a place for support staff in that dynamic? Or would you prefer that every LGBT individual in your firm have a seat at the table and collectively address what it is like to beLGBT in your firm.

When determining whether straight allies will be members of the group, your core group should consider concerns that the dynamic of the conversation will change. Will your LGBT members feel restrained from speaking freely and openly about challenges they face? Your firm may have rules that govern who can and can't be a member of a given affinity group or whether individuals can be excluded. If not, your core group should at least give some thought to these questions before forging on and seeking recognition as an affinity group.

Formal or Informal?
If your firm has a process or procedure for establishing an affinity group, you're well on your way. Don't be afraid to reach out to members of other affinity groups to find out what questions you should be asking and whether there's any "inside information" that could help you in your endeavor.

If your firm doesn't have affinity groups, chances are it's simply because no one has ever asked for one. Don't be afraid to make the "business case" for the formation of your group. It's entirely possible that diversity, and especially LGBT diversity, is an important issue for your firm's clients. Even if your firm isn't willing to endorse a formal affinity group, consider forming an informal or non-sanctioned group to help address the needs of the LGBT attorneys (and support staff, if they are part of the group) in your firm. It doesn't take the validation of your firm to determine that there is a need for the LGBT individuals employed there to support each other.

Write a Mission Statement
No great organization ever becomesa great organization without first understanding (and articulating) its mission. Make it a priority of your first meeting to understand the priorities of the group. Consider whether, as part of your mission, you want to raise awareness of the presence of LGBT individuals in the firm. Maybe you want to raise the profile of your firm in the LGBT community? A social component is always a welcome addition as well. There's really no limit to the creativity of your mission statement, but it should be limited to values a majority of the group believes in and feels it can adhere to and use as a guide to any actions the group takes.

Seek Allies and Funding
One of the ways to ensure the success of your group is to make friends outside the group. Even if your group determines that straight allies will not be considered as "formal" members of the group, consider an honorary status for allies within your firm. The more support your group has within the firm, the more likely you are to succeed. Increased support also helps with securing funding for your group. Many firms allocate funds to their diversity budgets, and oftentimes those funds are available for the asking. Consider asking for funding for the group to attend an LGBT seminar, firm sponsorship of a local LGBT charity or fundraiser, or even something as simple as a lunch or happy hour.

Law firms are evolving and are beginning to recognize the true value that diversity brings to the workplace. If you're thinking about forming an LGBT affinity group, do it. Your firm will only be better for it.

Keywords: litigation, LGBT, affinity group, diversity coordinator, human resources, Workplace Equality Index

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