How to Create a Sense of Belonging: Diversity and Inclusion

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.
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In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel went on record with Gia Altreche, the director of business development and marketing at Newmeyer Dillion. Gia leads the firm’s client engagement strategies to expand relationships further and enthusiastically support its client base and surrounding business communities. She is the co-chair of both the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the LMA Diversity and Inclusion Shared Interest Group (SIG). When not advocating within the legal industry, you can find her near water trying a new recipe, nurturing, and naming a new plant or binging some of her favorite classics on Netflix. Gia moved from New York to Arizona with her family at the age of seven and now lives in Long Beach, California, while she works in Orange County.

Gina and Gia immediately identified that they have much in common, including their collective love of cooking, travel, nurturing plants, and Netflix programs. Be sure to check out that part of the conversation by listening to the podcast.

Another thing we have in common is legal marketing. You and I met through LMA, and in particular, our first introduction was through Jennifer Simpson Carr. Then we reconnected through LMA committee work and planning that incorporates diversity, inclusion, equity, and anti-racism. Can you tell us what your role is in legal marketing, and how you got there?

Legal marketing found me. It was my interest in legal at first to become an attorney, which navigated into at Arizona State, their human communications group and I went on this journey to figure out how do I marry those two and legal marketing, through just networking. I was able to connect with someone who was at a larger law firm. I got a phone call from my now mentor and sponsor who I would call her both, “Hey, I have your I have your resume. Are you interested?” That started my journey as her assistant, and I haven’t looked back since.

I oversee the business development and marketing aspects of the firm. I have been a part of LMA since I started under Nathalie Daum at Lewis and Roca (now Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie), which was my first real legal marketing role. I have always been a part of legal marketing, and Nathalie has always been an advocate for me to be a part of legal marketing, and I quickly understood why. Now my role is how do I give back and continue to evolve the association in the way that Gia can. This year it’s in the form of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee. I am the co-chair the committee, which focuses on how the association looks at diversity and inclusion, best practices, and policies, and how they’re positioned. I also co-chair the D&I Shared Interest Group, which is providing resources and programming for our legal marketers to continue to be advocates and allies in their roles within law firms and across the industry.

You are passionate about what you do. I want to take a step back and learn a little bit about you and why you’re passionate about it. Are you open to sharing your heritage?

I am a Black Puerto Rican. Both of my grandparents are from Puerto Rico. I specifically identify as a Black Puerto Rican because my lineage on my mother’s side comes from slavery. My great grandfather was a slave. In Puerto Rico, they’ll put everything right into the category of Hispanic. It is important to recognize the fact that there is colorism and it is a question of you’re just one look or one feel and, sometimes that can be isolating. I’m proud to say that I am a Black Puerto Rican and recognize my mother’s history and lineage. I am a beautiful collective of both my parents and grandparents and great, great, great grandparents.

As I got older, I had to fill out these census reports and you fill out the information about your race. It says “Hispanic, not of African descent” or “African, not of Hispanic descent.” I always questioned that growing up because I didn’t know which one to check. Oftentimes they will just say, you’re Hispanic and that’s it. I knew that, yes, I am Hispanic. I am also Indian and Black. Puerto Ricans are mixed. We have such beautiful cultures that should be recognized. That started me on my journey of understanding who I am. Through that understanding that if I feel this way, and maybe others feel this way, I am learning how I can help create a more inclusive culture where people belong; feel that they belong in this space. Oftentimes, while growing up, I checked the “other” box because I did not want to say one parent classifies here and the other parent doesn’t. Now, I am thankful that oftentimes you’ll see “mixed race.” We are evolving. Therefore, my passion and advocacy are to make sure everyone feels included.

Have we come to a point in history where it is okay to ask someone how they identify culturally? By starting the conversation there, does it say, “I respect you?”

Absolutely. The only thing that we are asking is for people to lean in when it gets uncomfortable. That is that place, at least for me, where it says, Oh, this doesn’t feel good. There must be something here. How do I navigate that? I can become comfortable in that uncomfortable space. By asking, you are creating a sense of belonging and respect from the beginning of the conversation.

I’m excited about what you’re doing with LMA. We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about the legal industry in particular and the lack of diversity in law firms and legal marketing and why there’s a need. Would you mind talking a little bit more about that?

I disagree when you say the lack of diversity in legal and in the legal industry. I don’t think necessarily it’s a pipeline problem. Rather, it is a, “where are you going” problem. We have gotten comfortable in going to certain law schools because of their brand recognition or the “like me bias” of, I went to XYZ law school. One idea that I have been grappling with is, what do those admission practices look like? When we are all going to the same law schools and they’re admitting 20%, 25%, 15%, 10%, and then every big law firm is going to the same place to recruit, then yes, there’s a lack of diversity.

It is a misperception that it is a diversity issue. There is a plethora of extremely intelligent, educated attorneys of color everywhere. If you look at those admission processes and you say, okay, they’re only including 10%, then I’m going to question, where i’s everyone else and why am I going there? Why are we limiting ourselves to geographic location, especially now? Where are other attorneys that may not be from the geographic areas that we’re currently in and how did they get here? Where are their law schools and how do we create authentic relationships there? It’s an opportunity to focus in on the equity and the inclusion part. I’m not saying that diversity is not important and it’s not something that we still need to be tackling in the ways that I just referenced. I just think that I often hear the issue of, “Oh, well, we just don’t have the diversity.” I ask, “Is that the case? Or are you looking at it from a lens, from a bias, from a lens that we could potentially expand on?”

An important point that you make is that people need to feel a sense of belonging. My friend , who I’ll be interviewing for the podcast is the executive director of the in Pennsylvania. He too talks about diversity, inclusion and anti-racism as needing the sense of belonging. So, how do you create a culture of belonging?

That is a great question. We’re all figuring that out because it depends on the culture, you’re in. It’s part of the reason why a lot of people will slap the label diversity and inclusion onto any kind of initiative. Just to take a step back, I am not an expert in this field. I simply raised my hand in LMA because I want to move conversation into action, and I want to educate myself. If I’m going to give back, why not give back in a space where I’m passionate. I find a sense of connection to it and it will make me a better person.

I want to understand the nuances like the diversity and inclusion professionals who do this every day. I’m coming at it from a perspective of a legal marketer that understands that advocacy is necessary. I have a role that I could be playing in a much better way and a much more authentic and present way. I raised my hand to be in these roles so I can both be educated and help move conversation into action. With that preface, I would say that I am learning that every culture is different. It may be a diversity issue. It may be, we can’t get them in and therefore they’re focusing in on this. But one thing that I’ve really been thinking about when it comes to belonging is how do you set the table to where the seat is already there with their name on it versus, “Hey, pull up a chair, you’re welcomed here.” There’s a different tone there. When you’ve already set the table and you ensure that there are not only more seats than there are people, when people come there and a seat is for them, you’re then telling them, I have thought through this process, I have thought through what it meant for you to make it onto that seat.

Does creating a sense of belonging include the food you serve within a company or at events?

Yes, that’s important. As legal marketers, we run events all the time. I stress this with my team; how are we deconstructing everything? How are we making sure everything is labeled? I want to make sure everybody’s fed. Ask about allergies and preferences when they sign up for events. We have a piece that says, please let us know if you have allergies or you have restrictions, or if you’re on a certain diet, because we want our clients and our attorneys to feel comfortable and fed. I mean, what’s the worst ever. I can tell you right now when I haven’t eaten and you’re in a meeting all day, I mean, you’re focused on what am I going to eat when I get out of here or I’m hungry, or my stomach’s turning, or … insert key issue here. We must think about how people feel welcomed. Food is essential. These are simple to help people feel a sense of belonging. These are just small things we can do.

What are some other things you’ve thought of in terms of either legal marketing industry or a law firm that helped to create a sense of belonging helped to make sure that that seat is there for you when you arrive?

I try to visualize what the experience is or whether it’s our attorney that’s coming in. I know there are questions around how to people of color. Okay. Well, what does it look like when they get in the door? Do they have a mentor assigned? Are they going to get that billable good work? Is there a clear path to equity that is outlined? What does belonging really mean to them? Obviously, they are here to develop their career. We want to make sure that they have a reason to stay here while, grow with us. Let them know that “we care about you.” For me, that hits everything from training to understanding different cultures, and cultural development training.

How to lead diverse teams is incredibly important, too, and for everyone. Every person in the firm plays an extremely important role. Look at our director of first impressions, AKA, what people call the receptionist. Someone comes in and they have a hard time, or they don’t feel a sense of welcoming or engagement from that director. They may walk right on out. I have heard horror stories on the fact that they have. I have seen people barely look up at me and just tell me to sit down.

I’m the process person who sees everything in the details. I’m the person that goes in and tries to think through how we can make this better. I ask why things are here and if they have a place. If so, great, let’s make it better. The make it better part is a collective of the collective conversation, which is part of diversity and inclusion. It should not be my idea. It should not be just me coming up with a solution. It’s how do we all collectively talk about that because you’re looking at it from a different lens. Every person is looking at it from a different lens. I am incredibly grateful for our LMA D&I Committee and SIG members. Collectively we work on things because they are bringing different ideas that I would have never thought of.

One of the big things that we have wanted to work on in the great leaders in our SIGs and our committees and the leadership and LMA has been willing to say is how do we approach it from social media and social media responsibility, how are we communicating this? How are we being authentic? If we are making a statement, how do we walk that talk and not just make a statement for statement sake, or maybe you don’t make a statement. Or you create an internal statement and get things in order. We’re creating a sense of fun and engagement and belonging and inclusion every day.

Jill Diamond is the director of events that Lewis Roca. I have known her since I started as an assistant. I am in awe of what she does every day because she creates the space to feel included. I would just challenge everyone, whether you are C-level or mid-management developing your teams in communications, in business development, or client feedback. Ask how you are looking at it from the lens of diversity and inclusion. Only then will we be pushing forward in understanding that this is a collective, this is not an individual. It’s not just a program, it’s a way of life.

Can you tell me a bit about the LMA D&I SIG’s book club?

Yes. It was the brainchild our co-chair, Rafeedah Keys, Senior Marketing Manager, Perkins Coie. She’s a big bookworm and she loves reading. The unfortunate events of George Floyd’s murder and the countless others caused us to seek resources. I don’t know what I don’t know. At that point, Rafeedah recognized that this could be a great time for us to launch a book club. She was able to engage   who are leading our book club initiative and they are fantastic. I am asking every listener to please join our book club, because it is rich with dialogue and engagement and questions that make you stop and think.

Information about the LMA D& I Book Club (From LMA’s website)

As part of LMA’s commitment to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Shared Interest Group (SIG) will be hosting a Summer Book club to exchange ideas and share best practices on how we approach these recent events in our firms. We suspect these conversations will last about 1.5 hours per call.

Education and greater self-awareness are foundational for change, and the purpose of this book club is to provide a safe, non-judgmental container for members to educate themselves on the history of systemic racism in America and the world beyond. We will come together to read about and identify internalized and systemic racism and have open conversations about how to make changes on the personal and community levels while advancing solutions within the legal industry. We recognize that these conversations may, at times, be uncomfortable. Still, we are encouraged that as LMA raises our collective voices for change, we are willing to do what is necessary to equip ourselves better to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Within this container, every person’s contribution will be valued and thoughtful; respectful participation is encouraged.

We just finished reading White Fragility, and often, we heard, “Wow, that was a book that you have to sit on and think, and come back and go back and think, and come back.” I have enjoyed seeing my colleagues taking this initiative and helping spread the word and, and more importantly, spread the resources for how we can all elevate.

Do you have any other books that you would recommend right now for our listeners in the diversity and inclusion space?

On a more personal note, what are the achievements that make you most proud?

Of course, being the first college graduate of my family is a considerable achievement. I do think that the work that I’m doing right now is one of my most significant accomplishments because I am making sure that I help or at least am putting forth the effort to making this industry better than I’ve seen it. I want to make sure that I’m contributing to the greater good. That is what makes me happy. That’s what excites me every day and understanding that there’s just much to learn. Why not be an advocate for helping find resources and moving conversations into action and doing the best I can with my talents in moving the ball forward here. I would have to say; this is high on the list of trying to be the best person I can be. It’s an achievement in itself.

BEFORE THE PODCAST

Before the podcast, Gia answered preliminary questions.

Please describe your organization in a few sentences.   

Newmeyer Dillion is a west coast based regional law firm with one clear focus: delivering holistic and integrated legal services tailored to propel each client’s operations, growth, and profits. With a cohesive team approach, the firm represents clients across diverse industries in all aspects of business, employment, real estate, environmental/land use, privacy & data security, and insurance law.

What is the one thing listeners need to know about working with you?

My approach to business development and marketing is client first, last, and always. My goal is to reset the former “business development” (tactical) mindset into client engagement (human engagement) strategies based on a business mindset focused on authenticity.

What are the benefits of working with you/your organization? 

I’m both a big thinker and process master. With 14+ years in the industry, she has a deep passion for helping law firms create incremental steps for long term success, including building and sustaining a culture that nurtures an inclusive environment where everyone has a seat at the table and a voice to be heard.

What trends do you see in the industry, and how do they impact your business or your audience?

Regardless of the service offerings that are on the rise or being erased, the insurmountable levels of trauma that individuals and companies are facing right now will rely on our industry to think, and act differently. However, many have shared that outreach was still few and far between from lawyers, with firms relying on the old peg they are trying to fit into the new hole. This will create distance and disengagement from clientele who are more susceptible to lean on firms who are willing to re-imagine what service looks like moving forward, and that’s a very personalized approach. In a world where everything is personalized for us, from ecommerce to Netflix, we have an opportunity to take a page from their book in how we engage. The intentional use of technology and leveraging the mislabeled ‘soft skills’ are essential for firms looking to not only weather the storm but offer a competitive advantage.

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