What It Means to Belong

Note from the Editors: We were touched to receive this submission to the Debevoise Women’s Review from one of our summer associates, Margo Watson. Margo’s submission is an important reminder of the effect that a commitment to diversity and inclusion can have both within and outside of an organization. We celebrate our peer firms in business and the law who are striving to ensure that their employees at all levels feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.

“You’re interested in Big Law?” Many of my law school friends were confused when they saw me during on-campus interviews last fall and learned that I was interviewing for tax or corporate departments at New York firms. Presumably, they thought I would work in public interest because of my passion for social justice issues, or my previous experience as an executive director of a non-profit. But when my peers told me they never saw me as the “business type,” or asked if I was aware that “New York is so intense,” I wondered if my identity as a woman or as a member of the LGBT community had an impact on their expectations.When I read over the National Association for Law Placement demographic surveys before my on-campus interviews, I learned that, on average, a “diverse workplace” was one where the total number of LGBT-identified women was greater than three, or one where the total number of associates and partners across any minority group had managed to reach double-digits. I wondered if I would feel like an anomaly at a firm, or if I should change my mind about entering Big Law. As I started taking more business and tax courses in my 2L year, I realized that I no longer had female professors, and when I looked around the classroom, I could count the number of female students on my fingers. I loved the content of my classes, but I still had a nagging question of whether the lack of diversity that I was seeing in the classroom was a warning sign that I would not be successful in this career.

When I arrived at Debevoise as a summer associate, I was grateful to realize I had found a community that strives to support all of its members, and is dedicated to increasing diversity both at the firm and in the legal profession. I was encouraged as I worked with male partners who clearly wanted me to learn and be successful here. I never felt I should be embarrassed if I had a question about a corporate or tax law concept, and each time I asked for clarification the attorney I was working with would begin their response with those magical words: “Great question!”

My fears about not belonging became quieter still each time I met someone who also did not fit the stereotype of a typical “Big Law attorney.” I was heartened each time that I was introduced to another female partner or met another openly LGBT attorney at the firm. And each time I met someone who embodied diversity in any sense of the word, I realized that at one time they may have had their own doubts about belonging, but here they are nonetheless, thriving in this career.

As I wrapped up my summer associate experience, I was left with the strongest sense of gratitude for each attorney I had met who had also ignored these doubts, and pursued the career path they desired, whether that was at Debevoise or somewhere else. To each of these people I would like to say: I hope you realize the impact you are having on all of us who are just starting our legal careers. Your commitment to bring your authentic self to work every day serves as a powerful antidote to the myth of who belongs in this profession. Thank you for creating the space for us all to be here, and for making it easier for us to proudly say who we are, instead of worrying about whether we fit in.