Diversity in Practice: MoFo Celebrates Pride Month
A conversation about MoFo’s LGBTQ+ efforts with partners John Owen and Fredo Silva
Diversity in Practice: MoFo Celebrates Pride Month
A conversation about MoFo’s LGBTQ+ efforts with partners John Owen and Fredo Silva
Kate Driscoll, of counsel in MoFo’s Investigations +White Collar Defense practice group, interviews John Owen, Corporate Finance and Capital Markets partner, and lead of the firm’s LGBTQ+ Affinity Network and Fredo Silva, active affinity group member, partner and co-chair of the firm’s Social Enterprise and Impact Investing Group, about the firm’s activities supporting the LGBTQ+ lawyers at the firm and locally in our communities, and how they hope to shape the legal industry for future queer lawyers.
Speaker: Welcome to MoFo Perspectives, a podcast by Morrison Forster, where we share the perspectives of our clients, colleagues, subject matter experts and lawyers.
Natalie Kernisant:Welcome to the diversity and practice podcast, a part of MoFo perspectives. My name is Natalie Kernisant and I am the chief diversity and inclusion officer for Morrison and Forester. This podcast series is designed to provide a space, to discuss a wide variety of issues related to diversity in the law. And to introduce you to some of our talented, diverse attorneys, their areas of legal expertise, and the work that they and their MoFo allies do in furtherance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Natalie Kernisant:It’s also our hope that by sharing D and I best practices, wherever possible, we can help make the legal industry a more inclusive place for those who are in the words of our MoFo former chair, Bob Raven, “just a little bit different.”
Kate Driscoll: Hi everyone. I’m Kate Driscoll, of counsel, in MoFo’s investigations and white collar defense practice group in Washington, DC. I’m here today with John Owen, corporate finance and capital markets partner, and lead of the firm’s LGBTQ plus affinity network, an active affinity group member, as well as partner and co-chair of the firm’s social enterprise and impact investing group, Fredo Silva.
Kate Driscoll: Thanks for joining me today to discuss MoFo’s work for the LGBTQ plus community, both within and outside the firm.
Kate Driscoll: So John, let’s start off this conversation by discussing your role as the lead liaison for MoFo’s LGBTQ plus affinity network and what the group does for attorneys and staff who identify as LGBTQ plus.
John Owen: Great, thanks Kate. So our affinity group is a network throughout all of our global offices that provides support and programming for our queer identifying lawyers and our allies. Among other events throughout the year, we of course organize our annual Pride month activities in our U.S.s and our non-US offices, including in Asia.
John Owen: And it’s interesting. I grew up in Oklahoma. Fredo, I know, grew up in Texas, and we often talk about how we’ve moved to the coasts, where cities have been historically more accommodating to the LGBTQ plus community, but we’re always looking to improve gay and transgender rights in less urban areas as well.
John Owen: And consistent with our longstanding history of leading the legal industry on LGBTQ plus issues, we’ve also been on the cutting edge in Asia, which I think is quite interesting. And, we have a long history of also supporting pro bono activities and Pride activities in our Asia offices as well.
John Owen: So overall, I see my role as liaison for the global affinity group to be--to help stitch together each of the affinity groups in our local offices so that we have a cohesive community throughout the firm.
Kate Driscoll: Thanks, John, that seems like a thoughtful approach to cultivating a queer inclusive environment across all offices at MoFo.
Kate Driscoll: Alfredo, can you speak to the work that we do outside the firm to support LGBTQ plus causes?
Fredo Silva: Sure. So we contribute to LGBTQ plus causes both through pro bono matters as you would expect from a law firm, but also through donations via the MoFo Foundation.
Fredo Silva: Probably over the last several years, and each year we’ve donated to more than a dozen different LGBTQ plus organizations. And I think probably in excess of about $50,000 a year, at least. Some of those organizations include the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, AIDS Walk New York, AIDS Walk San Francisco, GLAD, the Lambda Legal San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the Trevor Project, a lot of different organizations that you’ve probably heard of.
Fredo Silva: And we also contribute to them through pro bono hours. At least I think 1,500 pro bono hours last year. And it’s lawyers, not just in our affinity groups, the LGBTQ affinity groups, but lawyers across the firm are donating their time to these organizations.
Fredo Silva: John, why don’t you talk a little bit about what you’ve done?
John Owen: Sure. Thanks Fredo. I’ve personally worked a lot with a group here in New York called the Ali Forney Center. I’ve been on the board of directors, and I’m also on the advisory board now. And AFC as we call it is the nation’s largest LGBTQ plus community center focused on helping homeless, LGBTQ identifying youth.
John Owen: We talked about how the coasts have historically been seen as a more attractive area for queer folks to move to. And unfortunately in the noncoastal areas, as well as in New York proper, we still have kids being kicked out of their homes as they come out as queer or trans. And many of them flee to places like New York and they end up, unfortunately, homeless on the streets. And AFC provides a tremendous amount of service and support helping over 2,000 youth clients each year. They’re primarily between the ages of 16 to 24 years old. And we provide them with housing, transitional housing, as well as educational support services.
John Owen: And in addition to my board work with them, a number of our colleagues in New York, both within our affinity group and our allies have worked on a number of really interesting pro bono matters for AFC, including assisting with the groups, adapting to the very early days of COVID, which as a provider of residential support services, as you can imagine, was a very challenging time for the organization.
John Owen: In addition to AFC, we also, of course, provide a number of other pro bono services to LGBTQ plus groups. One is a group called Oasis. For Oasis, a number of our LGBTQ plus affinity groups and our allies conducted country conditions research which will be used by Oasis to provide some really vital support services to assist asylum seekers for people who are fleeing persecution based on their LGBTQ plus status in their home countries and are now in the United States.
John Owen: So Oasis and the research that we’ve provided to them is really a fundamental group in assisting with those asylum claims.
John Owen: And we also represent individual LGBTQ plus asylum seekers as well, including--we currently have a ninth circuit appeal that’s ongoing for an individual whose application for asylum was rejected despite facing some really awful persecution in Russia, in his home country, for being gay.
John Owen: And in another matter, we’ve also filed a brief on behalf of the LGBTQ plus Bar Association of New York in support of students at Yeshiva University who are in the process of challenging the university’s refusal to recognize an LGBTQ plus student organization on campus. The university in that case has alluded to some religious concerns as animating its refusal, but yet, while also issuing statements expressing their support for a diverse student body.
John Owen: In that case, Yeshiva is organized as a secular institution, not under the state’s religious corporation law. And so there are lawyers representing the students in that case, believe that the NYC Human Rights Law actually requires the university to allow the club on the same basis as other student organizations.
John Owen: And that’s an ongoing matter and a decision has yet to be issued.
Fredo Silva: I’ll go ahead and chime in a little bit about the work that I’ve been doing pro bono for LGBTQ plus and related causes here in San Francisco. We do a lot of work with the AIDS Foundation, helping them with not just the general corporate matters that I do--things like bylaws and helping them with partnerships with organizations, and corporate governance generally, but also with some cutting edge work that they’re doing that can really impact the community.
Fredo Silva: We’ve also done work, supporting other organizations that are sort of LGBTQ issue adjacent, right? So, for example, we helped incorporate and get nonprofit status as well as provide other advice for an organization called Give Us the Floor, or GTF. And Give Us the Floor provides LGBTQ teens in distress with the peer, positive human connection that they’re often missing.
Fredo Silva: They have a core program called supportive group chat that provide safe and anonymous online spaces where teens, both LGBTQ and otherwise can support each other without the fear of stigma, taboo and shame, and helping them share their daily life struggles, insights, accomplishments. And support each other and encourage each other and get nonjudgmental feedback from each other and from mentors.
Fredo Silva: And so this is something that we really think is important for alleviating mental health and social issues that plague our nation’s youth, especially LGBTQ youth. And so that’s something that I’m really proud of having been involved with
Kate Driscoll: John, Fredo, that really is impactful work that you and our MoFo colleagues are doing to support LGBTQ plus causes.
Kate Driscoll: So if we could shift focus for a moment, I’d like to ask each of you, what drew you to MoFo?
Fredo Silva: So as John mentioned, I grew up in Texas in Dallas and it was funny. I tell people how, when I first started out as a summer associate at the firm there, it was one of the nicer, more liberal firms for what that can mean in Texas.
Fredo Silva: And every summer associate lunch, I went out with a couple guys that would talk about football and golf the whole time and leave me, you know, not having very much to say. And I randomly went on one lunch with two female attorneys, one partner and one associate, and we talked about Project Runway and it was just awesome, and I connected, I had a great time. It’s stereotypical, but true.
Fredo Silva: And so after that, I talked to the recruiting manager and said, “Hey could I go on more lunches with some of the female attorneys? Because I think I just connect with them a little bit differently and better in some ways.”
Fredo Silva: And the answer was like, no, actually, because there aren’t enough female attorneys to go around to the female summer associate. And I was just like, this is really bizarre. There were a few other incidents like that, where I was just like, I can’t be here right now, not at this time. And then in contrast, looking at a firm like MoFo that is more progressive, fostering a positive and welcoming working environment.
Fredo Silva: And at the time Keith Wetmore, who was the chair of the firm was the only openly gay man serving as a chair of a major law firm, it was really clear that this was a place that I could thrive in and where the issues that I was having, being in Texas, would not have mattered.
Fredo Silva: You know, it’s really ironic. My brother is a couple years younger than me and is a lawyer in Texas. He’s also bi and is married to a man. And it’s great for him because just in that time when Lawrence v. Texas, and a lot of other things were going on, there’s just a shift in how people perceive and how the rules of engagement, how gay marriage is. All these things have changing.
Fredo Silva: Now, Texas is a much more liberal and open place where it’s not an issue, which is really exciting for us having, our Austin office getting open. And I just have to imagine, if I was maybe four or five, six years younger, I might be in Texas still.
John Owen: Thanks, Fredo. You know, I’m not a lifer unlike Fredo, but it’s really interesting. The change that Fredo alludes to. I’ve been in New York about 20 years now and was active in organizing affinity groups at one of my first firms.
John Owen: And, it used to be quite the struggle, quite frankly. Recruiting people wouldn’t necessarily know how to interact with LGBTQ plus candidates. Affinity groups were new. But that being said I’ve long admired MoFo’s culture. And Keith was a very forceful presence in the legal market.
John Owen: And so when I had an opportunity to join MoFo, I jumped at it, and the community here, and the culture here, is so enriching, and we really know how to walk the walk.
John Owen: We had these great internal LGBTQ plus policies, but we’re also out doing the right thing with our pro bono clients, and working in our communities to continue the fight for LGBTQ plus rights. And it’s so nice to know that you’re at a firm that supports you, that the firm is values led and that you can bring your whole person to work every day.
John Owen: So Kate you’re relatively new to MoFo. How did you choose us when leaving the government?
Kate Driscoll: Thanks John. I was most recently at the Department of Justice and I was involved in LGBTQ plus programming for Pride month while there. I was also on the steering committee of the University of Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ plus alumni association. And I’ve remained active in LGBTQ plus bar associations, specifically in Philadelphia.
Kate Driscoll: So for me, finding a firm that supported LGBTQ plus attorneys and legal causes was really important. And as John said, MoFo walks the walk. It puts real action and support behind its diversity initiatives. And there’s a premium placed on fostering a culture that champions diversity. And I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of that effort.
Kate Driscoll: So let’s talk about the future of the legal industry. What are young queer lawyers just coming out of law school looking for in a law firm? How can firms be more inclusive? And what advice would you give to encourage more LGBTQ plus individuals to pursue a career in law?
John Owen: Yeah, so, as Fredo said so much has changed in the last 20 years, and I look on the horizon and know that things will continue to change. I think this next generation is broadly looking for their employers to be transparent about culture. And really are demanding more from a company, from their employer, in terms of how to be treated as an employee.
John Owen: And I think that’s just a really great shift, as I said, being able to come to work as your whole self and not having the fear of being retaliated against because of your orientation or your gender identity, and being able to truly talk to your colleagues about who you are and about your life is a big shift. And I’m excited to see what other changes happen as inclusion, and our inclusion efforts as a society continued to evolve.
Fredo Silva: It’s interesting because as people we sometimes are only and are best able really to see what we care about and what our friends and family care about. And that’s the value of Pride in being out and providing other people exposure is--that gives other people, the friends and family, to see that they can then care about themselves.
Fredo Silva: But the point that I’m trying to make here is that it’s harder for me. I have trans friends, I have non-binary friends, but it’s a relatively new thing for me. And that struggle is not something that I have been part of, but I’m now starting to see more directly. And it makes me realize that we’re doing great as far as gay marriage and adoption rights and all that stuff, but there’s a new frontier of inclusion.
Fredo Silva: And not only that, but leveraging our pro bono program to protect people. So I know that we’ve done stuff like a name clinic to help trans people get their correct names on their identification. I think that’s really important, but I really am going to be looking to the summer associates and the new and younger associates that are joining the firm to help guide people like me and John on what they think we should be doing.
Fredo Silva: We’re giving it as much thought as we can, but we’re looking at them to help us grow and to help us figure out how we can take the next steps to be a supportive environment and to be a supportive member of the overall community.
Kate Driscoll: So to wrap up our conversation here today, since we’re celebrating Pride in the U.S., what does Pride mean to each of you?
Fredo Silva: You know, when I was at law school Kenji Yoshino was then at Yale--I think he went back to NYU or I don’t know where he is now--but Kenji had written a book called “Covering” and the book “Covering” was something that I think MoFo gave out a summer associates that already read it, but it was about code switching and how you present yourselves in different environments and how you act professionally and being a person of color or being LGBTQ or what have you.
Fredo Silva: And what I really like about Pride month is it gives me a chance to maybe uncover a little bit more, to maybe be a little bit more of my authentic self, to maybe code switch a little bit less and show people that we are here and that we are productive and equivalent members of the community, regardless of how we dress and whether we have painted fingernails or what have you.
Fredo Silva: And I really enjoyed that opportunity.
John Owen: For me, I think Pride is a great opportunity to remember our past and also understand how it informs our future. When I first moved to New York I don’t think there was as widespread of an understanding as there is today, especially outside of New York, San Francisco and similar cities, of the importance of Stonewall and the impact that it’s had on our community.
John Owen: And I think it’s important that we all reflect during Pride that the first Pride wasn’t a parade, it was very much a riot and a march. And while things, as Fredo said, are pretty comfortable for a lot of us in the LGBTQ plus community, especially for those of us fortunate enough to work at a place like MoFo.
John Owen: For many, the struggle very much continues, especially with the trans community. And Pride is a great opportunity to remind ourselves of that. To continue the advocacy and to continue the fight for the next year. But of course, it’s also okay to celebrate and have some fun while we’re at it, which I think is also an important aspect of Pride.
Kate Driscoll: And for me, Pride month is really a celebration of being my authentic self. And it’s one thing that I really love about MoFo, is that I feel like I can always bring my whole self to the table every day. I also think, as John mentioned, it’s a time to remember how hard the LGBTQ plus community has fought over the course of decades for equal rights, how far we’ve come as a country, and how much work remains.
Kate Driscoll: It’s also a time to speak up for those who may not have a voice and to support those who have not been able to be their true selves because of inequality and stigma.
Kate Driscoll: So John and Freda, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your personal experiences and how MoFo supports its LGBTQ plus attorneys and local community.
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