The Importance of Leveraging Your Network and Paying it Forward

Tara Castillo, Partner, Alston & Bird

Tara Castillo is a partner in Alston & Bird’s Finance Group in the Washington, D.C. and New York offices. Financial institutions and non-bank finance companies look to Tara to represent them in securitizations and other asset-backed finance transactions. She also helps her clients navigate compliance issues relating to the securitization aspects of the Dodd–Frank Act. Ms. Castillo is the co-chair of the firm’s D.C. Women’s Initiative Committee and is a member of the D.C. Office’s Diversity and Hiring Committees. She is also a member of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) and the Hispanic Bar Association of the District of Columbia (HBA-DC).

What challenges did you face as a young associate?

I began my legal career in September 2007, as a junior corporate associate at Alston & Bird. Although I started to witness signs of the market downturn as a result of the deepening housing crisis, I could not predict the impact that the global financial crisis would have on my practice, the legal industry, and the financial services industry overall. In many ways, the circumstances around me significantly shaped how I approach my career today, including reacting to time-sensitive situations both efficiently and effectively and being a consummate team player. Throughout this experience I also learned the importance of always being 100% engaged and investing in your practice. The latter came mainly in the form of co-authoring articles and law firm advisories focused on the many significant regulatory changes taking place, which allowed me to work with various partners across the corporate practice generally, develop long-lasting working relationships, and foster several critical, informal mentor relationships. Most importantly, my efforts helped me start credentialing at a very early stage in my career and, as a result, over time I gained recognition internally and externally as an industry expert for my area.

How important is a network and when do you start building it?

Very important. Never underestimate the power of your network—start fostering and developing relationships early in your career. Both internal and external networks are equally important. I’m currently co-leader of the D.C. Women’s Initiative Committee, and in this capacity I have the opportunity to facilitate and strengthen the female attorney network within our office and provide a forum to discuss and address top-of-mind issues. Among the many activities and events we organize throughout the year, in my opinion the most organic and successful events have been when our female attorneys come together and connect with a minimal agenda, sharing and bonding over common and current experiences. As a diverse attorney, affinity bar affiliations can also provide several different professional development and networking opportunities. Through the HNBA and HBA-DC, which I’m a member of, over the years I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with other Hispanic lawyers, both nationally and locally, that I would not otherwise have had an opportunity to connect with.

Networks can nurture mentors and facilitate future job and client opportunities. Many law students do not realize that they graduate law school with a starter legal network—their classmates. Case in point, my first client was a colleague from my first-year law section. Networks and relationships take time to build (in most cases years), have to be genuine, and require work. Social media platforms like LinkedIn are helpful to keep track of the members within your network, but it should never replace direct and frequent communication.

You practice in an industry where there are not many other diverse, female lawyers. Has this ever presented a challenge?

 I’m a proud first-generation American of Trinidadian and Venezuelan descent, and I’m the eldest of two daughters. My father, who was a physicist and also a minority in his profession, always challenged us to work harder than our peers, set our goals high, and never walk away from a commitment. I lead and negotiate multimillion- and sometimes multibillion-dollar transactions, and I’m often the only diverse (and sometimes female) attorney in the broader working group. Very early in my career, I strived hard to negate any perceived differences by always being overly prepared, vocal, and both fearless and deliberate in my execution. Fortunately, there have only been a few instances in my career to date where I explicitly felt negatively challenged and/or dismissed by a male counterpart because I was female and not necessarily because I was diverse. In those instances, I relied strongly on my industry experience, effective communication skills and self-confidence, to successfully negotiate my client’s position. I take pride in knowing that my clients hire me because of my work ethic and industry reputation and have the utmost confidence that I can structure and effectively negotiate complex transactions on their behalf.

Do you think mentoring plays an important role in career progression?

I strongly believe that it is important to have mentors—emphasis on the plural. While it is critically important at both large businesses and law firms to have a formal mentoring program in place, in my experience it is incumbent on a younger attorney to actively seek out informal mentor relationships. As a diverse attorney, it may be the case that your mentor is not diverse. Some of my most thoughtful mentors and advocates have been white males, but I leveraged their experience and advice to impact my own. In the legal profession it’s extremely important to have a dedicated sounding board and one or more seasoned practitioners to solicit uncensored advice. It is also important to have mentors both inside and outside the firm.

 How do you positively influence diversity and inclusion?

I’m a strong believer in the importance of paying it forward and providing younger diverse attorneys with the tools and resources to succeed through mentoring, training, and support. Throughout my career, I have been extremely fortunate to have had many staunch supporters and advocates. In my day-to-day practice, I actively look for both internal and external opportunities to support associates generally, including diverse associates. This may be in the form of serving as an informal mentor or sounding board for critical and work-sensitive issues, or helping associates raise their profile internally by making cross-office and/or practice group introductions. I currently serve as a member of both the D.C. Diversity and Hiring Committees and, in this capacity, I actively participate and engage in committee-related initiatives. As a diverse attorney who, by Alston & Bird standards, is considered “homegrown”, it is critically important for me to participate in our external summer associate interview process and share with younger attorneys my experience as a diverse female attorney in a large corporate firm setting.

External networking and community involvement is an important aspect of my practice, and I like to invite associates to attend key Bar and other industry networking events. For example, I once invited a junior associate to attend an HBA-DC Bar event where we both had the opportunity to meet Justice Sotomayor! I also recently helped another associate transition into an external leadership position I previously held with a local not-for-profit funder of civil legal aid. This associate over the course of several years helped me increase awareness and solicit financial support both internally and externally for the organization.

As senior diverse attorneys, it is incumbent on all of us to create opportunities for others, and it is critical to actively provide ongoing mentoring and support. As a member of the local DC legal community, I meet with local law students several times a year for coffee, and as a former member of the board of the Latino/a Alumni Association of the Washington College of Law, participate in resume workshops and panel discussions. Outside of the law, I’m currently working with Brookhaven National Laboratory to put in place a STEM scholarship in my father’s name. Where I have the opportunity to try and make a difference in diversity and inclusion, I strive to do so, not just in the legal community, but overall.

What advice would you give to a younger attorney?

Take ownership of your career early, and be proactive not reactive. Seek out challenging work opportunities and become industry aware. As an associate, this means identifying and regularly reading industry publications that are relevant to your practice and keeping abreast of industry and regulatory events that may be of key concern or interest to the senior attorneys on your team and clients. Strive to become the go-to associate, the associate senior attorneys rely on and want to work with, and the associate clients want staffed on their teams.

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