Legal Career Spotlight: From Private Practice to Dean of Students to Belonging Consulting
Published: Oct 18, 2019
Neha Sampat is CEO and founder of GenLead|BelongLab, where she focuses on building belonging and true inclusion and developing authentic leaders. After earning her J.D. from UC Berkeley, Neha practiced law at both large and boutique law firms and later joined law academia as dean of students and adjunct professor of law and leadership before founding GenLead|BelongLab. Neha sat down with Vault to discuss her incredible career path, the importance of belonging in the workplace, and the future of diversity in law.
Vault: What initially drew you to law school?
Neha Sampat: I went to law school for in some ways the wrong reasons, and in other ways the right reasons. I went straight from undergrad—I felt pressure to choose a respectable, professional, and challenging career at that time. Truth be told, I didn’t explore other options. I’m South Asian, my parents were immigrants to this country, and there were very few South Asians in law when I went to school. I didn’t know a single lawyer, so I didn’t have a realistic perspective of the industry, and I experienced a very rude awakening when I arrived at law school. I didn’t know what I was getting into; I didn’t do my due diligence. I was young; I could’ve used more time to try different things, to ask myself, “Who am I? What’s going to work for me?”
As for the right reasons, law school aligned with my personal core values. The first being growth; I wanted a career with rigor—one that would challenge me. And the second was fairness—I’ve always been interested in justice and doing what’s right, so the law definitely aligned with my personal values. Maybe not necessarily to practice law, but certainly for the opportunities a legal education provided for growth and to make the world a better place.
Vault: After some time in private practice, you became dean of students at Golden Gate University School of Law as well as an adjunct professor of law and leadership at the school. What prompted you to move from private practice to academic leadership?
Neha Sampat: What for many is a career transition was for me more of a career transformation. It wasn’t like I was going to a different firm or practice area; I left practice entirely. I think that when we change careers or jobs, we’re often running away from something—but we also have to be running towards something. I had terrible impostor syndrome from the moment I entered law school, and it was exacerbated by practice. I didn’t have a bevy of mentors looking out for me in practice. No one was telling me the unwritten rules, and I blamed myself for not knowing them. Looking back, I realize how untethered I was. Many of my law school classmates got the unofficial orientation—they had parents who were lawyers, they had people who looked like them willing to mentor them. Studies show that, due to unconscious bias, people tend to mentor people who remind them of themselves, so I didn’t have that type of early mentorship. I felt like I was walking a minefield—so when something didn’t blow up in my face, it felt like luck. And when I took a real misstep—as everyone does (we’re all human)—it felt catastrophic. My self-esteem suffered, and I never felt like I belonged. Certain colleagues of mine were rays of sunshine but not enough to keep me from wanting to run away from the practice of law.
As for what I was running towards: I wanted a guidance role. I realized that I was good at mentoring, at helping people feel good and excited about their futures, and I wanted a job that let me use those skills. Speaking to my personal values of growth and fairness, I wanted to work in education and empowerment to provide greater and more equal opportunity. I also wanted something more collaborative—to be an advocate without the adversarial aspect that comes with being a lawyer. I loved building relationships and thinking and writing analytically, so I found a way in my new role to preserve those aspects of lawyering. So the role at the law school was kind of perfect.
Vault: What was the impetus to founding GenLead|BelongLab? What was the transition to consulting like?
Neha Sampat: I was with the law school for ten years and was feeling stagnant: I wasn’t growing in the way I needed to at that point. That’s the personal part—I needed a challenge. The other personal reason was that, in part due to the realities of being a woman of color, I had become too good at telling people what they wanted and expected to hear at the expense of my own voice. So to honor my voice, which was barely audible to me at the time, I chose to go out on my own. And as it turns out, entrepreneurship helped me tap into and strengthen my voice—I was on my own, and there was lots of silence around me, which made my own inner voice more audible.
On the professional end, I started the company out of a desire to dig deeper in inclusion, belonging, and leadership development with a fresh approach.
Vault: I thought GenLead|BelongLab was a diversity and inclusion consultancy when I was researching it, but I was wrong—your focus is more on belonging than traditional D&I. I’ve never heard the term “belonging” in this context—could you dig into that a bit for me?
Neha Sampat: Belonging is an inclusive approach to inclusion. D&I is generally viewed from the top-down. Diversity is getting people from different backgrounds in the room, but not doing much to keep them there and value them. Diversity wasn’t going to do it for me. Inclusion is a little better—it’s about how you retain and engage people with different identities and experiences. It’s a noble cause, but it’s still practiced top-down. Firms and organizations promote that they’re doing A, B, and C to be inclusive, which is great, but when you ask the people who work there for their perspectives, you learn that their problems aren’t really A, B, and C, but instead D, E, and F.
Belonging is bottom-up—it’s about asking people in the organization what their experiences are, what their organization’s strengths and challenges are, what makes them feel like they belong in their organization, and what makes them feel like they don’t. What creates a sense of belonging can be different from you to me, so we have to ask each person instead of making assumptions. If we can actually listen to people’s perspectives, then we can create and implement a strategy to solve the right problems in the right way.
Lawyers love data, but they prefer the more objective, social science data and can exclude lived experience as “too subjective”—but the lived experience really matters. Whether you stay with an organization or leave, whether you feel safe offering ideas or you don’t. Lawyers need to broaden their concept of data to include both social science and people’s stories. So at GenLead|BelongLab, we like to start with a belonging assessment to get input from everyone in an organization. Every conversation we have and piece of data we receive from an individual is unique and reinforces the validity of this bottom-up approach.
Vault: How does your law background contribute to your current work?
Neha Sampat: I work cross-industry, but a lot of my work is in the law. Knowing the legal profession has been a boon—my first job was in BigLaw and then I moved to a boutique education firm—so my clients know that I know what it’s like to go to law school, and I know what it’s like to practice law. I understand the organizational dynamics of legal practice, and I understand the individual dynamics of being a part of this profession, so I have earned credibility with my law clients. For example, I’ll talk about impostor syndrome and self-doubt as hidden barriers to belonging in the law, and they say, “Oh my gosh, you get it!” Impostor syndrome is a niche area of my company’s work, and my law background helps me target this work to the lawyer experience, asking, “We lawyer ourselves into impostor syndrome—how do we lawyer ourselves out?” In other words, I can help my law clients leverage their legal training and perspectives to help them find greater success, fulfillment, and wellness in their work. Also, building a business requires hard work—law school and legal practice taught me how to work hard, be resilient, and assess the facts to develop a strategy. So being a lawyer is a real superpower for me in my current work.
Vault: Another of GenLead|BelongLab’s unique perspectives is that of generational belonging. As Gen Z starts to enter the professional ring, what changes do you foresee in the workplace and, in particular, the legal profession? What does this newest generation bring to the table?
Neha Sampat: The legal profession’s leadership is dominated by baby boomers and Gen Xers, and millennials and Gen Zers are coming up. When we move from complaining about other generations to valuing and capitalizing on them (without stereotyping individuals based on their generations), we develop more functional and successful businesses. For example, as a Gen Xer myself, I don’t think I would’ve started my own business if it weren’t for my millennial law students, who, instead of asking “Why should I try this?” tended to ask, “Why not?” That “why not” helped me take the intimidating leap into entrepreneurship. So each generation has much to learn from others.
Looking forward at Gen Z, they’re more job-security oriented, like older generations, but they are tech wizards like millennials. The dollar sign might matter more to Gen Z than to millennials—while they’re looking for that millennial flexibility, they really want job security. Gen Z also has so many identities beyond their age—gender, race, sexuality, etcetera—and the legal profession’s stagnancy in D&I is going to be severely problematic for them and will drive their attrition. I think there’s a crisis coming around the bend in law—where’s the future in the profession if firms are struggling to keep these people? We need to ask these young lawyers, not just ourselves, “What does a happy or engaging workplace look like to you?” That’s one way we can start to address the problem.
Vault: And finally, what advice would you give attorneys or law students who would like to take their legal expertise somewhere besides BigLaw and private practice?
Neha Sampat: Figure out what you’re running away from and what you’re running towards. When I left the practice of law, I was so burnt out that I didn’t know what I wanted to run towards, so I left the law, took a month to recover, and got the clear space in my head to ask, “What’s important to me? What are my values? What pieces of lawyering do I want to take with me?” Also, be resourceful. We’re lawyers, we know how to do that. Value the wise people around you by asking them what their work is like, what they enjoy about it, and what they find frustrating about it. But also value the wise person that is you. If you want to leave the practice of law, you have to blaze your own trail. You can listen to and value others, but you have to listen to and value the voice within yourself to pave your unique path forward.
You can learn more about Neha and her work at www.genlead.co and by joining her newsletter community by clicking here.