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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

What the backlash against DEI teaches us about the practice of Belonging

Setting the table 3 of 3
March 20, 2024

This is the second draft of this post. The first was a point-by-point evisceration of anti-“woke” state laws, anti-LGBTQ+ laws, “critical race theory” accusations, book-banning, curriculum-whitewashing, the 1776 Commission, and the new threat (though not new at all) of activist litigation using the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on race-conscious college admissions as a cudgel to slow or stop diversity and equity initiatives. I was fired up – at one point I even threw in Langston Hughes’ “The Backlash Blues” and some James Baldwin on our fraught relationship with history.

Then it dawned on me. OK, I’m right on this – I feel sure I am right, as each of us usually feel – but so what? And what next? What good does spleen-venting do? That first draft was angry argument. Ever try to berate a jury into returning the verdict you want? Suasion beats scolding, every time.

So sure, as with any such backlash, there are ample opportunities now to go into battle, especially as this appears to be a battle over our history, over who we are, and over who we will be. And, lest we lose sight of it in the haze of battle, the purpose of backlash is to perpetuate power.

But at work, battles can also divide and distract. It’s hard to plow a field with a sword. Practicing Belonging at work shifts the focus from conflict to community, from animosity to accomplishment. Belonging doesn’t call out, it calls in. And if practiced well and consistently over time, Belonging may even help restore the scarcest, most valuable resource of all – trust.

And the thing is, our ingrained attitudes tend to change, and our biases tend to retreat, when we spend time with each other, actually listen to each other, honestly get to know each other, and work together, side-by-side, toward a shared objective, be that landing the new client, winning the case, closing the deal, or growing the Firm.

So, when law firms work on getting better at practicing Belonging, they not only keep their eyes on the prize – they may also get there faster.

… and yet I can’t help myself. Here’s that Baldwin passage:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.  And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.  In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view.  In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historic creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating:  one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.

Baldwin, The White Man’s Guilt (1965).