chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

The Importance of Belonging in the Legal Profession

Mark Baugh


  • While lawyers have not focused on the sense of belonging, it has always been essential to the proper functioning of legal organizations––the difference today is that the diversity of the workforce has added more complexity to people feeling included and welcomed.
  • With the recent challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion, a true sense of belonging becomes even more critical to the well-being of lawyers.
The Importance of Belonging in the Legal Profession

Jump to:

The legal profession has been a part of the ever-increasing discussion on the diversity of our economy. Over the years firms, companies and public sector organizations created different diversity initiatives, which then led to the incorporation of inclusion, then the expansion to equity. In recent years, a very robust conversation has developed around the concept of belonging.

One of the more impactful scenes for me in any movie is the scene styled the “Bathroom Scene” in Hidden Figures. The actress playing Kathrine Johnson is asked by her boss why she is missing for approximately 45 minutes each day. While dripping wet from the rain, she informs her boss that there are no “colored” bathrooms in the building in which they work, or in any building nearby. The tension in that room and the level of frustration conveyed by the actress playing Kathrine Johnson is remarkable. The acting and staging of the scene makes one feel as if they are in the workplace feeling the tension and frustration. While direct discrimination supported by segregation is no longer the norm, unconscious bias and microaggressions are still prevalent in our workplaces. If you put yourself in the place of historical figures like Ms. Johnson, who experienced such hostility, it is hard to imagine how she and her fellow scientists accomplished so much in such an openly confining working environment. Unfortunately, our history is littered with these stories. One can only imagine how much more such brilliant people could have contributed to our society and economy if they were not performing under such intolerable conditions.

Inclusion, Equality, Equity and Belonging

As we face challenges to the progress we have made in our workplaces, belonging becomes even more important. Belonging is where employees are valued, accepted and heard at work. An employee has a sense of belonging in an organization when they have a sense of being valued and when they have positive connections with their co-workers and management. Belonging in an organization occurs when the employees feel that the culture in the organization allows them to bring their authentic professional self to work, when the organization has developed a culture where the employees are supported in their professional and daily development and when the employee feels psychologically safe at work and their unique qualities are valued. Belonging encompasses diversity, equity and inclusion.

Diversity refers to representation within an organization. It is usually looking at the numbers of ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and physical ability. If your organization has been successful in increasing its representation of diverse groups, and those groups have diversity amongst themselves, then the next phase is creating an inclusive culture to ensure that the employees you have––regardless of identity––are included in your work force.

To achieve inclusion, the workplace must have a culture of equity. Systems should be in place where employees and potential hires see a clear path to success in the organization. Equity and equality are similar in many respects, but the importance of equity in our organizations takes into consideration an employee’s unique qualities. As stated in the Annie E. Casey Foundation blog article “What’s the Difference Between Equity and Equality?”, “Equal­i­ty assumes that every­body is oper­at­ing at the same start­ing point and will face the same cir­cum­stances and chal­lenges. Equi­ty rec­og­nizes the short­com­ings of this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and under­stands that dif­fer­ent lev­els of sup­port must be pro­vid­ed to achieve fair­ness in outcomes.”

Why should diversity and inclusion be important in the workplace? Diversity, equity and inclusion are often highlighted for an organization to continue to experience continued success. McKinsey and Company’s reports state that there is a “clear correlation between diversity and business performance.”

Developing a Place and a Culture for Diversity

If we examine workplaces today, many still do not provide places where employees can bring their authentic professional selves to work, which can have a direct impact on an employee’s well-being. For years the structure of many of our legal organizations has been places where employees kept parts of themselves hidden from work. They were not organizations that catered to people who were different or to individual strengths. They were organizations that lacked diversity and some employees were lauded as being the first to be hired or first to being promoted. Many employees do not like to be pioneers when being so makes them the outlier of a particular group.

Organizations that do not provide “brave spaces” or transparency where they can voice their opinions are not paying credence to the needs of their employees. While many employers have highlighted their diversity, they have also acknowledged the challenging work that comes with creating a culture where employees are valued and treated with respect. This is unfortunate as it is the actions, not just the words, that make an employee feel included in the organization, and that is what leads to a sense of belonging.

Most employers believe they have “a great workplace culture.” But what does that mean, and how does one get the great workplace culture to manifest itself? Does having a great workplace lead to the employee having a sense of belonging? To determine whether your organization has a culture that is suitable for everyone to perform and feel a sense of belonging, the employer must create a system to foster that culture. It does not happen by chance. It also must be measured, whether by survey or listening sessions.

For legal organizations to begin working on a culture of belonging, organizations should first create well-structured diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. These initiatives are essential to everyone being able to contribute to the organization. Building the traits of diversity, inclusion and equity into your system allows employees to feel valued, they feel that they can be authentic in their contributions to the workplace. Employees in these organizations feel comfortable expressing their opinions, they are mindful of not trampling on other people’s opinions and expressions. They feel a sense of belonging in that organization. When employees are working in an environment where their well-being and mental health are not being compromised by being isolated due to their differences, they are more productive as employees and have a greater sense that the workspace is perfect for their style of work.

Steps along the road to belonging.

One of the first steps firms must take to achieve this sense of belonging is acknowledging the fact that one culture does not fit all. Organizations should create opportunities for employees to connect with each other and with the firm.

Other steps firms can take to ensure they are fostering a sense of belonging include:

Examining outdated working methods. Law firms must examine whether they are adapting to a new generation of employees who have joined the workforce, versus trying to get these generations to adopt to outdated methods of workplace culture. The legal profession has adapted from researching via books to using a variety of electronic research tools; however, it continues to be slow to address issues such as work assignments, and the “free market” way of getting work.

Endeavoring to assign work to newer, younger employees. While the model of young attorneys asking for work from more senior attorneys may have worked previously, it no longer is the most efficient way of assigning work and representing clients. Building teams to staff projects and assigning work to team members creates a sense of value and respect. It allows people to see where they are on the team and their path forward in our legal organizations.

Addressing gaps in the onboarding process. The onboarding process is critical for employees to determine whether the organization has a culture of belonging. Personalized welcomes, introductory lunches with team members and emphasizing diversity equity and inclusion during the onboarding process are ways to show the organization's culture of belonging. Being transparent about the organization and sharing the goals for success with new hires can create the sense of belonging. Additionally, using the onboarding process to let new hires be aware of the strengths and weaknesses in the culture, and how they can be a part of improving the culture, can create a feeling of belonging.

Developing targeted group training, recognizing employees for their contributions and appropriately providing immediate feedback. The feedback must be given not to highlight the employee’s failure or the superiority of the supervisor, but to make the team and the organization better. Often in legal organizations, feedback is seen as corrective action to document a potential future legal issue. The way the feedback is given can determine whether the employee feels a connection to the workplace. Feedback and evaluations should not come as a surprise to the employee, particularly to younger or newer employees in the workforce. The criteria used in the evaluation process can sometimes be subjective. It can be normed based on some past employee who fits into the past culture of the organization. For example, some evaluations or systems for rewards are geared toward highlighting employees who performed a significant amount of work. They do not highlight whether the work completed was significant or creative. They often do not highlight whether the professional was efficient.

Creating a culture of access to well-being tools. Providing employees access to counseling, whether it is live or virtual counseling, can send a message that the employer cares about the employee's well-being beyond just production.

Accepting boundary management around clear working hours. While law firms have historically demanded significant billable hours, we are seeing more burnout from attorneys. Technology has made legal professionals mentally and physically “on call” for most of the day. Even though it has led to efficiency for younger attorneys in private practices, technology has also reduced the number of billable hours. Research that usually entails several books and hours can be completed in a few minutes. Technology used for discovery or due diligence has sometimes removed the need for an attorney to be intimately involved. Such situations can lead to attorneys becoming anxious about their hours and jobs, leading to negative professional behavior.

Ensuring a physical environment of belonging. When creating a culture of belonging, it is also important that the employee feels comfortable physically. Making the workplace ADA compliant and providing spaces for employees to observe their faith when requested are part of the legal compliance that also helps communicate to employees that they are important to the organization. Apart from legal compliance, creating spaces that are gender neutral or suitable for different working styles are other ways to create a culture of belonging.

Developing and executing learning sessions. While the entire workforce needs to be educated, the managers need to be educated about the importance of belonging. They need to understand and buy into how a culture of belonging leads to success for them individually, for the team and for the organization. Projecting and communicating both internally and externally a healthy work environment aids in recruiting and retention.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging in a Post-Pandemic World

During the pandemic, employees in the legal profession struggled with their well-being and their sense of belonging. Remote working led to a detachment from the organization. They continue to struggle with the sense of belonging in a post-pandemic work-from-home, hybrid approach. Employers, who have not created a culture of belonging, have employees who work remotely and are unsure of their place in the organization. Without this culture of belonging, employees can feel isolated and detached from the workplace.

In our post-pandemic workplaces, some of the old methods do not contribute to legal professionals feeling valued, respected and therefore, they do not get a sense of belonging. Particularly in the hybrid or remote working environment, employees can feel disconnected and feel additional pressure to work all the time. Employers have added work to do to create a sense of belonging with employees who are remote employees. There are several ways to connect your remote employees back to the workplace. Allowing them to lead important calls, key projects or initiatives sends the message that the organization values remote employees. Inviting and encouraging employees to attend social events, even creating a virtual opportunity can break the sense of isolation and detachment remote employees may feel.

Creating a culture of belonging is important to the professional growth of employees and the growth of legal organizations. In responses to a 2020 Deloitte survey, 93 percent of organizations stated that a sense of belonging drives organizational performance, 79 percent of organizations stated that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce was important or especially important for their success over the 12 to 18 months but only 13 percent responded to being ready to address this trend.

It is important for firms to live by the values they espouse. Remain honest about where your organization is on this journey and communicate openly with employees. Remember that you will have to modify the processes and systems that go into building a culture of belonging. The plans you develop are no different than any other strategic plan that a law firm or organization develops––it must adhere to the changes in your business. It is an ongoing process but remember that your employees and your business partners and clients are watching. Iterate and evolve your strategies, just as you do with other parts of your business. Putting diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging efforts into practice is an ongoing process that carries benefits for everyone in your organization. Maintain an open mind and bring along the organization, regardless of any opposition. The result will be more content employees, better work product and better relationships both within and outside of your organization.