Socially conscious literary icon Charles Dickens portrayed the squalor, blight and inhumane working conditions of the industrial revolution. We have indeed come a long way from Victorian London, its workhouses, and heart-wrenching demonstrations of inhumanity, bias, and prejudice. Yet have we come far enough? The time has come for a “Belonging Revolution” in law firms.
Since 2020, billions have been pledged by U.S. companies to promote DE&I. Most recently, a more detailed concept and new nomenclature has been added to the DEI spectrum—belonging.
7 minute read
Law Firm Management
By Jennifer S. Bankston
Today, the world’s strongest brands and workplace experts, already committed to fundamental fair labor practices for decades, have embarked on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to improve workplace culture. Since 2020, billions have been pledged by U.S. companies to promote DE&I. Most recently, a more detailed concept and new nomenclature has been added to the DEI spectrum—belonging.
Law firms can be fragmented and isolating environments for individuals that comprise the organization—from law clerks to lawyers to marketing and business development personnel to accounting to any billable timekeeper. This feeling of isolation is the antithesis of belonging.
Belonging has been defined as “feeling like you can be your unique and authentic self at work and also connected to those around you, which fulfills our core need to form and maintain strong, stable interpersonal relationships with others.” (Source: Qualtrics: https://www.qualtrics.com/blog/belonging-at-work)
Belonging is a strategic imperative for a law firm if only because of its positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, an area where the legal sector trails most industries. Experience management firm Qualtrics measures and works to improve the experiences companies provide to customers, vendors and employees. In a Qualtrics global study of approximately 11,800 participants, belonging emerged as the strongest driver of employee engagement— ahead of typical drivers like trust in leadership and ability for career growth. A key and critical aspect to building a healthy workplace, belonging prevents burnout and psychological stress while engendering teamwork and loyalty, creating competitive advantages from better employee retention to better client service.
In a belonging environment, people feel supported and can bring candor and humanity to the workplace. In a recent Deloitte study, 61% of the more than 3,000 respondents, hide some part of their identity at work—whether not speaking up on an issue, alter their physical appearance or mask their associations. (Source: Deloitte study: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/covering-in-the-workplace.html).
It is only a matter of time before law firms will be asked to show their clients how they are creating an environment and culture of belonging for their employees—and provide the data to demonstrate it.
Here are three ways a law firm can create an environment and culture of belonging.
Create firm “values” that can be lived daily—and stick to them.
Law firms need to decide what they value and align their conduct with those values. Measurable results can be achieved by embracing new ideas, honest critique, and transparency. Indeed, a firm can achieve greater success in both employee morale and in its delivery of services to clients. Belonging allows employees to speak up about problems before they metastasize and create larger issues.
Lisa Tsai, a founding partner of litigation boutique Reid Collins & Tsai, explains that her firm was created by experienced Big Law practitioners for exactly this reason. “We believed a law firm could be more dynamic and fulfilling than what we had experienced so far, and we set out to make it a reality. We prize meaningful work, transparency, and wellness—making sure that our employees take pride and joy in what they do and are well taken care of along the way. By bringing meaningful cases, and giving our lawyers significant responsibility and experiences, we have created a firm that is happier and healthier for our employees and their families. The work will always be demanding—that is what we all signed up for as lawyers. But we take concrete steps to make sure that our employees feel part of something bigger, something impactful, something we are building together. For instance, every time we obtain a major win and money comes into the firm, we bonus out every single employee, not just the lawyers or the senior leadership. Our law firm is living proof that it is possible to run a successful law practice while also creating a happy and healthy culture where everybody can belong and thrive.”
Once you define your values, and determine how you will implement belonging, tie all your decision-making to that “culture.”
Amy Keller, chair of the privacy, cybersecurity and technology practice at fast-growing litigation boutique DiCello Levitt Gutzler and co-chair of the firm’s diversity equity and inclusion committee, is developing initiatives around belonging to augment her firm’s policies. “When we started the firm, it was important to us that the people we hired felt like they could be themselves 100% of the time,” Keller said. “Many of us worked in Big Law or environments where we felt like we had to put up a ‘front’ during working hours. But this type of pretending makes it impossible to ensure that people are truly happy at the firm, or to check on their emotional, physical, and professional wellbeing. Creating a firm culture that encouraged people to be themselves was critical.”
Whether you chair a law firm practice group or department, or serve as client team lead on a matter, a genuine commitment for the wellbeing of the team is necessary to building a belonging culture. This is at all levels of the law firm—ideas bubble up as much as they trickle down. Make time to create opportunities for idea exchange and openness.
“My practice group holds regular ‘huddles’ to check in on partners, associates, paralegals, and support staff,” Keller adds. “An environment of inclusion—where we encourage everyone to share their concerns and ideas—not only builds a more cohesive team, but it also ensures longevity of the firm’s overall health.”
Engage your clients as well. Interview your clients and understand their needs and values while at the same time learning how they are leading their organizations. “We apply the same principles to our clients that we do our team members,” says Keller. Employees, prospective employees, and clients are all human and we all gravitate toward a healthy and thriving environment.
Be flexible and authentic.
Jennifer Schelter, a corporate wellness consultant who teaches mindful leadership and communication skills, helps companies and individuals to identify and achieve their highest potential through a variety of self-awareness, reflection and communication exercises including meditation, writing, yoga and coaching. She explains that “creating a space to air honest needs and feelings facilitates connection and trust. Authenticity leads to honest communication and vulnerability. People may come into these processes holding a lot of stress, resistance, fear or resentment, not understanding the goals. Once the safe space and guidelines are established, it’s remarkable how quickly people open up and how much empathy, goodwill and creativity start to flow from sharing simple truths. My corporate and institutional clients probably benefit the most—once they trust and buy into the idea. They are always surprised at the positive impact their teams experience from bringing mindfulness and self-awareness practices into their sphere. They stop hiding behind their positions and pride. Mindfulness practices promote the basic elements of collaboration and level the playing field so everyone can begin to value the power of a shared belonging.”
From Blight to Belonging
These next steps in the workplace are significant and not a fig leaf or performative exercise for outside consumption. Our culture and our workplaces are screaming for change. Each member of the firm can benefit by engaging in these practices—which will help strengthen the foundations of your existing team. The external messaging will follow once implemented, not vice versa. Developing a sincere and holistic approach to organizational wellbeing will be not a façade you share with the outside world, but a reflection of your healthy functioning organization.
Jennifer S. Bankston heads strategic marketing and communications firm, Bankston Marketing Solutions and is co-founder of The Chiral Project, an organization designed to create equitable and sustainable leadership paths for women, and bring balance to the boardroom, C-suite and beyond.