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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

What is Belonging at work?

February 28, 2024

If I’ll be asking other lawyers about their experiences with Belonging in their law firms, I’d best start with a definition of Belonging.  My predicament is that, as already mentioned, I’ve never had to closely examine what Belonging actually means in a professional setting.

My conundrum reminds me of how David Foster Wallace began his Kenyon College commencement address, This is Water:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

So, what the hell is Belonging?  I do know a few things:

  • Belonging is a basic need.  Maslow placed it in his Hierarchy of Human Needs just after physiological survival (food, water, breathing) and security and safety (financial security, health and wellness, avoiding accidents and injury).  In Maslow’s view, Belonging is an essential foundation for our yet higher needs for self-esteem and self-awareness.
  • Belonging is intuitive.  In any setting we each have a gut sense, in that moment, of whether we belong.  While some of us may have the privilege of taking it for granted, Belonging ultimately means so much to each of us.
  • Belonging is not fluff. I bet the members of SEAL Team Six have a keen sense of belonging.  Whether it’s unit cohesion on the battlefield, or teamwork on the gridiron, Belonging is not merely the stuff of snowflakes.
  • Assimilation is not Belonging. Assimilation means surrendering one’s identity and lived experience.  Assimilation doesn’t add, it subtracts.

Fine, but I still need a working definition to anchor the conversations to come.  So how’s this, from Alida Miranda-Wolff’s superb book, Cultures of Belonging:

Belonging is your sense that you are part of something greater than yourself that you value and need and that values and needs you back;  it cannot be achieved without factoring in social identity and use and misuse of power.

She should know.  As the offspring of WASPs and Cuban refugees, and after a successful career in venture capital, Miranda-Wolff is the founder and CEO of Ethos, a full-service DEIB firm that serves hundreds of client companies across the globe.  On Belonging, she adds:

Belonging comes from developing context, creating connection, building community, and understanding your relationship to power, how to use your power responsibly, how to share your power, and when and how to redistribute your power.

It’s customary to view Belonging as merely a subjective feeling held by the individual who works in an organization.  This framing risks making Belonging at work inconcrete and emotional, somehow “soft” and inconsequential.  It also, by sleight of hand, makes the individual the only actor in the mix.

In Miranda-Wolff’s definition, Belonging is indeed a sense felt by the individual at work, informed by the individual’s identity and lived experience.  But Belonging is also the result of action.  Actually, consistent action over time. Belonging is something actively practiced by the organization, either intentionally and positively, or thoughtlessly and poorly.

Some might say that what an organization does to foster Belonging is properly called inclusion, while others see nuanced differences.  The extraordinary Vernā Myers said “[d]iversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”  Yes.  But it seems like Belonging is something yet more, beyond being included as a welcomed guest, and instead being a full and equal member of the dance club.  As the authors of Overcoming the Inclusion Façade put it;

This statement, commonly heard in DEI circles, … reveals a key shortcoming in how many companies understand inclusion ….  [T]here is an alternative: a company where all employees have a say in whether to throw a party and who can attend, and where everyone can show off their moves without having to wait for someone else’s extended hand to head to the dance floor.

So, in upcoming conversations I’ll ask about the practice of Belonging – the specific things that law firms, practice groups, and partners actively do to build, or detract from, different lawyers’ sense of Belonging.