In honor of Pride Month, we spoke to Venable attorneys Colin Vandell and Tiffany Williams about how the firm's LGBTQ+ affinity group got started and continues to evolve; the difference dedicated affinity groups like LGBTQ @ Venable make to their members' lives and careers; and the important role law firms have to play in the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights.
Q: Colin, you were involved in the foundation of LGBTQ @ Venable. What led you to getting the group started, and what kind of support did you receive from the firm?
Colin: Yes, I co-founded LGBTQ @ Venable in 2018, a few years after I joined the firm. There had been an LGBTQ community at that time, but not an affinity group dedicated to LGBTQ issues. So, we started the group to create a space where LGBTQ individuals and their allies could have a place to talk and interact with the rest of the firm about issues that are relevant to this community. We got enormous firm management support from the very beginning, which meant that we could form the organization right off the bat and that there were ample financial resources to hold events and so on for the group.
Q: Tiffany, you've since come on as co-chair of LGBTQ @ Venable. How did that come about?
Tiffany: I was recruited to the firm through Lavender Law, which is a LGBTQ job fair for legal students. Through the interviewing process, I met several attorneys who were part of the affinity group at the time. They were very friendly and welcoming, and I could tell that Venable was going to be a good fit for me. Once I started as an associate, I was interested in becoming very involved in the affinity group, both because it touches my life and because it felt important to have involvement in the firm in other ways beyond just billing. So, I took part in different activities related to recruiting and brainstorming on how we could increase our visibility to diverse law students and raise awareness of diverse issues. I was soon asked to step in as co-chair of LGBTQ @ Venable with Colin and began helping organize external and internal events at the firm.
Colin: One of the really nice things about Tiffany coming on board to help run the group is that now we have a collaboration between the partner perspective and the associate perspective. This is important because things are changing so rapidly for the LGBTQ community, that the perspective of an LGBTQ individual who grew up in the 80s and 90s is going to be different from that of someone who grew up in the 90s and 2000s, even though they are not so far apart in age. One of the nice things about having a non-monolithic group like ours is that it brings together a variety of perspectives and helps us realize how much progress we have made.
Q: What kind of events and activities does the group host?
Colin: The first big event that we had was with Jim Obergefell, the named plaintiff in the Supreme court same-sex marriage case, at our DC office in the summer of 2018. That event, which was attended by colleagues firmwide as well as clients, really signaled the start of LGBTQ @ Venable. Since then, the group has continued to sponsor large events on a regular basis that highlight issues of relevance to our community. Some of our recent events have included a conversation with author and activist Keith Boykin, who addressed intersectionality through his own experience as a gay man of color. Another was with transgender fashion model Geena Rocero, who spoke about the challenges facing the trans community, particularly transwomen of color. Because these events are attended by allies across the firm, from senior management down to junior associates, we are exposing people to perspectives on issues that might not have been on their radar.
Q: How has the pandemic affected these events and other activities?
Tiffany: Since the pandemic hit, we just moved all of our speaking events online, and while it's not the same as being in person, the events are well attended. In pre-COVID-19 times, we would also host frequent happy hours where members would get together in our different offices, and occasionally connect with other offices via videoconference. The central purpose is to just talk about whatever comes up, but we also sometimes discuss issues that are of interest to members, an example being employee benefits, particularly parental leave and other pregnancy-related benefits. Obviously in the past year, we haven't been able to get together in person, but in some ways connecting virtually from our homes has facilitated more intimate connections. So, our virtual happy hours have been a sort of silver lining during the pandemic.
Q: This year, LGBTQ @ Venable has stepped up its efforts to celebrate Pride Month. Why do you think it's important to do that?
Tiffany: Every year we strive to build on what we've done in previous years. This year, along with flying the rainbow flag over our DC headquarters, we've expanded the number and range of programs so that we can explore issues that get less exposure. Our upcoming panel on gender identity and use of pronouns is a good example of an issue that we haven't really touched on much at the firm.
Q: And, of course, law firms have played an important role in bringing about real change.
Colin: Absolutely. The legal community – from nonprofits like Lambda Legal to big law firms – has been involved in advancing LGBTQ rights every step of the way, and the pace of change is really picking up. For example, we went from having Prop 8 passed in California in 2008, which by vote of the people barred same-sex marriage in the state, to having the Supreme Court legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states in 2015. Now, the focus is on the transgender community, an underrepresented and often ostracized group. The fact that legal organizations are turning their support to that group is very meaningful and important.
Q: Do you believe affinity groups like LGBTQ @ Venable are making a difference?
Colin: When I was a summer associate at another large law firm in the early to mid-2000s, I was not out at work because it just felt more comfortable – it seemed like a much easier route not to have to deal with all of that. But now at Venable, because we have an affinity group to connect with, a significant number of lawyers and staff are openly out at the firm, especially in the younger classes. Half of this year's summer associate class in Los Angeles is LGBTQ, which is a huge increase over previous classes. To have such a shift in a relatively small amount of time has been very gratifying. It's important to remember that there are still many people in the industry who are not yet comfortable with expressing who they are. So, part of our goal with LGBTQ @ Venable is to let people know that there really is a support network here at the firm.
Q: How important was it to you as a younger associate, Tiffany, to know that such support was available?
Tiffany: It was critical for me. It took me so long to reach a point where I fully and completely accepted myself that by the time I got there, I swore that I would never take a step backward. And joining a law firm where I could not feel totally comfortable just being myself would have meant taking a big step backward. I didn't want to have to hide my sexuality or the gender of my partner. So, one of my priorities was to be in an accepting, inclusive, supportive environment, and Venable has turned out to be just that.