The Work that Lies Ahead: Belonging

By James G. Leipold

From the Executive Director column
NALP Bulletin+, July/August 2022 edition

The 1L class that entered law school this past fall was the most diverse ever measured according to LSAC and ABA data. Similarly, NALP data show that the summer associate class from 2021 was the most diverse class of summer associates ever assembled. The American Lawyer’s 2022 Diversity Scorecard showed the overall percentage of attorneys of color across Big Law moved from 18.5% to 20.2% in a single year, the biggest year-over-year shift on record. All of that is remarkable and is really good news.

On the other hand, the NALP Foundation data show that in a year of record-breaking associate attrition, associates of color left law firms at twice the rate of white associates. NALP data show that the gaps in employment outcomes for Black and white law school graduates have grown rather than shrunk. And even in 2021, less than 1% of law firm partners are Black women or Latinx women. All of that is remarkable and is really bad news.

Clearly there is much work to be done, and I would suggest that at least part of that work for the legal profession includes moving from diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). With a hat-tip to Vernā Myers, we invite many diverse lawyers into the profession, but many of them do not feel as if they belong at the dance. According to a 2020 article from SHRM, “diversity is a fact, inclusion is a behavior, but belonging is the emotional outcome that people want in their organization.” More recently, the Academy to Innovate HR has written that “inclusion involves efforts and behaviors that can be fostered by the organization or actually by the people in it … belonging is something that employees themselves feel and results from your inclusion efforts.”

All of us have been in places where we did not feel as if we belong, and not belonging is as much a feeling as belonging is. To feel that you do not belong is awkward — it’s not a pleasant feeling — and most of us choose to remove ourselves from situations where we feel or sense that we do not belong. And because belonging and not belonging are feelings, no one can tell you that you belong and cure the feeling of not belonging. It’s not that simple. A sense of belonging comes from an understanding and a confidence that you share a set of values, mission, purpose, and cultural norms and understandings with another group of people; a sense of belonging comes from the confidence that you can be your full self in a particular setting and not risk being rejected.

It's useful to think back on all the times when we have not felt as if we belonged, as kids, as teenagers, as young adults. What were the places where we felt that we belonged? Where were the places that we did not, and what was the difference? Growing up as a gay kid in the 1970s, there were many times I felt as if I did not belong, even within my own family and within my school. I often felt isolated. But I had tons of privilege that mitigated that sense of not belonging. I was white, and I was male, and that gave me the confidence to power through my sense of not belonging, the confidence to insist that I did belong. I am more mindful now than ever of the many privileges that have enabled my strong sense of belonging throughout so much of my life.

A lawyer’s journey to belonging starts with that first day in law school. We invite a diverse group of law students into the building, but do they feel as if they belong? What do we do to make them feel as if they belong? I think back to my first day at law school and I certainly did not feel as if I belonged — perhaps no one does — but that changed quickly for me. I was a white dude with a big mouth and lots of confidence, and I quickly felt at home — I had an intuitive sense of the rules of the game, how to engage, how to win. I had the social capital and the mastery of social cues and a strong sense of self-confidence. I think back now on all the people in my class who did not share that sense of belonging, who did not share that set of passed-on social capital that I brought with me.

I wonder how many members of this year’s entering 1L class, the most diverse 1L class ever, felt as if they belonged in the building, and how many did not. The summer 2021 summer associate class was the most diverse ever, but I would venture to guess that once the numbers are in, this summer’s class will turn out to be even more diverse. I wonder how many of this year’s summer associates felt as if they belonged in the building and how many did not, and how that sense of belonging or not belonging will have affected their summer experience, their work, and their feelings about returning to the firm after graduation. How many women feel as if they belong in the deal room? A growing number, but still not enough. How many women feel as if they belong around the management table? A growing number, but not enough.

The thing about inclusion is that it is something that we do to you — we include you. Belonging is harder. It comes from within. We cannot make a young lawyer feel as if they belong. Belonging is personal. A person must feel as if they belong. We can, however, strive to create environments where more people feel that they belong, and we can raise our awareness of how many people in our law schools and our law firms don’t feel as if they belong. We can draw on our own experiences of feeling that we did not belong to understand the feelings of not belonging that so many people in our institutions experience. And we can strive to create ever-more inclusive environments where a greater number of people feel that they belong.

If we ever hope to retain the many, many diverse lawyers who are coming into the profession at this remarkable moment of change, we must strive to add belonging to our work.

James G. Leipold ( is Executive Director of NALP, the National Association for Law Placement, Inc.

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