MoFo Partner Dario de Martino on the Power of Allyship

Dario de Martino is a partner in our New York office and is a member of our Mergers + Acquisitions Group.

He has a wide range of experience representing U.S.-based and global technology, financial services, and healthcare companies with respect to their domestic and cross-border mergers & acquisitions, carve-outs, joint ventures, and other complex private equity transactions.

Dario’s expertise and one-of-a-kind skillset allow him to serve as the Co-Chair of our Blockchain + Smart Contracts Group, where he regularly counsels some of the most influential market participants with respect to the rapidly growing areas of blockchain, tokenization, cryptocurrencies, and smart contracts.

He is a Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD) Fellow and is actively engaged in the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Dario is also deeply committed to pro bono work, recently representing a Hispanic immigrant child reuniting with his mother by terminating the deportation proceedings and securing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), as well as advising a variety of nonprofit organizations and spearheading clinics for female entrepreneurs.

Why is allyship important to you, and what are you doing to be an ally?

I have always believed in the power of allyship to help trigger meaningful and lasting change. We need more buy-in from white cisgender men to make change happen, but everyone has the ability and the responsibility to become an ally and trigger positive change, especially with all that has recently transpired. And that is because privilege is relative and contextual, i.e., a white woman could be an ally to a woman of color, a gay man could be an ally to a straight woman, etc.

Women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ professionals are still massively underrepresented in positions of leadership. Allyship is a powerful tool through which we not only can support diversity and inclusion but also amplify the voices of severely underrepresented communities. I am a very pragmatic person. I love checklists, so here is my checklist for effective allyship.

1. Understand your privilege.

Challenging the status quo or simply having conversations with yourself, or others, about systemic issues that may have played in your favor can certainly be uncomfortable. I have lived my whole life thinking if I work hard, really hard – if I prioritize my studies and my career, do great work – one day that hard work will pay off. And that sacrifice, that hard work, eventually paid off for me. I was very fortunate to have a mentor who groomed me and then spent some of his hard-earned political capital advocating on my behalf. However, that type of meaningful support and investment isn’t always extended to those who are, in the words of Bob Raven – a former chair of our firm deeply committed to diversity – “a little bit different.”

Unfortunately, gender, race, color, ethnicity, and sexual orientation can all still be barriers to opportunities for development and success. This does not mean that white or white-passing or straight or straight-passing people have an easy life, or that our careers have been handed over to us. (A white-passing or straight-passing person doesn’t fully escape the possibility of discrimination, or the fear that they are being secretly discriminated against, which can sometimes be more harmful than overt discrimination.) It just means that there are some things in life that we never have to experience. For example, until the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion on June 15, 2020, clarifying that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and sex, also applies to gay and transgender workers, there were only 21 states in the United States that offered protections for LGBTQ+ workers, leaving about half of the LGBTQ+ community vulnerable to being unfairly fired, not hired, or discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A straight or straight-passing person would never have to worry about being fired for who they are or who they love, just as a white or white-passing person would never have to choose between wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 and becoming a more likely target of racial profiling or some other form of conscious or unconscious bias. That’s privilege. That’s how I remind myself about how privileged I am. And that’s where allyship comes in.

Allyship to me is about understanding that imbalance in opportunity and supporting others in order to correct it. While a few generations ago it may have been sufficient to be well-informed and willing to engage in constructive conversations about diversity, inclusion, and racial justice, I think it has become imperative that the new generations of leaders routinely and proactively support those who have to endure systemic racism and injustice every day. It is not enough to claim to be color-blind, as if pretending not to see color is nonracist. It is not enough to claim to be socially liberal, because supporting protections for LGBTQ+ people is also an inherently economic choice. It is time we understood that to combat racial injustice, we must support antiracist policies. It is time we understood that to combat homophobia, we must support protections for LGBTQ+ people. Allies who believe in creating an inclusive and egalitarian system should constantly listen and learn and then advocate for all underrepresented minorities. Reflecting on your own privileged status is only the first step of allyship.

2. Use your privilege to advocate for minority and marginalized groups.

People in privileged positions have the ability to advocate for minorities and other marginalized groups. That, however, doesn’t mean speaking on their behalf. It also doesn’t mean putting yourself in the center of the narrative. Sometimes even a well-intentioned person may unintentionally stymie full participation from all groups. For example, a well-intentioned white straight male will likely not entirely understand the struggle of a working mother of color who has to warn her son about police brutality and then turn back to her laptop and focus on the excellence of her work product for a demanding client.

Donating to the Equal Justice Initiative, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the NAACP, performing pro bono work for the ACLU, watching HBO’s Insecure and feeling a little bit of empathetic discomfort for the only black person at the office, while commendable actions or nice feelings, are still not enough to understand the effects of racial injustice on people of color or the micro-aggressions they must navigate every day. I know that I will likely never feel anxiety – or fear for my life – when I see a blue light flashing behind my car, like my black partner does.

So, instead of speaking for oppressed or marginalized groups, I, as an ally, try to empower them and make space for their voices to be heard. I take the time to talk with all the associates in my group and get to know them, personally. Giving practical and actionable feedback on a regular basis is extremely important to me. I try to create safe spaces for dialogue on differences and proactively solicit diverse viewpoints. I make sure everyone knows diverse or dissenting perspectives and ideas are always welcome and, in fact, valued. I step back and listen. I appreciate the honesty and validity of the stories and experiences of others even if they are different from my own. I try to staff matters with an equal number of male and female associates. I support their business development efforts. I always seek opportunities for diverse associates to lead discussions and have face time with clients. I focus our group’s recruiting efforts on women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ lawyers. I politely condition speaking engagements on there being at least a woman or another underrepresented speaker on the panel. I point out the lack of diversity of potential targets that my clients consider acquiring or investing in, so they can make better choices going forward. I make valuable introductions. I also don’t pretend that everything is hunky-dory; instead, I ask uncomfortable questions.

However uncomfortable it may be to speak up, I remind myself that being silent only allows the status quo to continue. I also recognize that not everyone is in a position to call out questionable behaviors. Now, I know I have missed a few opportunities to do so myself, but, as an ally, it’s important to reflect, discuss, and commit to doing better the next time. Finally, I think we should not let perfection be the enemy of good; we must not use the fear of potentially making mistakes in this sensitive space as an excuse to do little, or worse, do nothing, but instead we should channel that fear, and, rather than succumb to it, we should focus on building resilience. The ability to receive critical feedback is key to all forms of growth, both personal and professional. We must take that feedback, course-correct, and hone our allyship skills. Every little step counts.

3. Surround yourself with people of diverse backgrounds.

I have always surrounded myself with people of diverse backgrounds. My closest friends are an African-American male, an observant Jewish male, and an Asian-American female. Don’t get me wrong, we usually end up eating Italian food, but that doesn’t mean we don’t first engage in very meaningful conversations about world cuisine. Joking aside, differing perspectives, challenging one another’s preconceived notions, speaking different languages, and understanding different cultures inevitably results in increased critical thinking, requiring lawyers to think through their ideas from different angles and ultimately producing much better work product. To me, diversity and inclusion is not an add-on or something to delegate, but a crucial component of who I am and a central strategy to the success of my practice and our firm.

Why did you choose to make MoFo your professional home?

Morrison & Foerster is one of very few law firms I know that has been able to leverage its cultural strengths and sense of community to become a forward-looking, innovative, and global law firm. As our former chair Keith Wetmore, who was the first openly gay man to serve as chairman of a major law firm, stated: “nice guys can, in fact, finish first (or at least near the front of the pack), while still caring about collegiality, pro bono, and diversity.”

That, to me, says everything you need to know about MoFo’s culture and why I joined.

Add to that the fact that we are a go-to firm for technology M&A and cross-border deal-making, which are my passions. I can seamlessly work on a variety of complex transactions across the United States, Asia, Europe, and Latin America while being confident that the quality of my team’s work product will be outstanding. You just can’t beat that!