Q&A with Course Instructor Michael Kahn, JD, LPC — Vancouver ReelTime CLE, Charlotte, NC
Why is it important for lawyers to understand implicit bias? What impact does implicit bias have on the legal profession?
Implicit bias is, by definition, unconscious, and it can negatively impact our interactions with others and lead us to make decisions that unintentionally disadvantage or disrespect others who are different from us. In the increasingly diverse communities in which lawyers live and work, and against the backdrop of a more global economy, it is imperative that we increase our awareness of our implicit biases so that we can be more intentional in our decision-making. If we do not, we risk having interactions with clients, colleagues, judges and others that are offensive and hurtful, lead to unfair results, or keep disadvantaged people groups from fair and proportionate participation. And as more and more studies are showing, implicit biases (and lack of progress towards meaningful inclusion) can actually threaten the bottom line of any organization or law firm (notably through costly burnout and attrition of employees and staff).
What are some examples of implicit bias in the context of legal practice?
One study we will discuss is called Written in Black and White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills. Dr. Arin Reeves and her team at Nextions researched whether “confirmation bias unconsciously causes supervising lawyers to negatively evaluate legal writing by an African American lawyer.” They found that 60 law firm partners’ written evaluation of an identical legal memo differed substantially based solely on the identified race of the memo author. In the “real world,” this type of bias impacts not only recruiting and hiring but also the assignment of cases, mentoring and client development opportunities, and partnership decisions, all of which can lead to lower morale and high attrition rates. The short vignette we wrote and filmed for this workshop dramatizes several real-life stories that we read or heard, such as one instance in which a firm client asked a Black female lawyer to get him some coffee, and then inquired when the lawyer would be arriving. For many people in marginalized groups, these repeated frequent indignities are in fact more damaging than flagrant racism or sexism.
How does recognizing and reducing implicit bias benefit an individual lawyer? A law firm? The legal profession?
By recognizing our implicit biases, lawyers can be more intentional in our interactions and decision-making. Our actions can grow to be more consistent with our stated values. As noted above, a law firm that is seen as fair and genuinely inclusive will have better morale and higher retention rates. Also, reducing implicit bias and having a more diverse staff can impact the bottom line. Many in-house counsel for major corporations are increasingly requesting, if not demanding, more diversity in the law firms they hire. Reducing implicit bias will also lead to increased public confidence and trust that the legal profession and justice system are equitable and accessible to all individuals.
What types of strategies will attendees learn at the Illumination of Bias course?
Through viewing and discussing a series of thought-provoking and entertaining film clips, participants will learn how to have more constructive and respectful conversations about biases as they show up in practice (whether you are the person who has been offended or the one who may have inadvertently said or done something problematic). We will discuss how mindfulness can mitigate biases and resultant negative behaviors. We will encourage attendees to be curious about themselves, and ask questions such as, “Do I have habitual patterns when reacting to specific individuals and groups?” and “Am I open to ‘surprises,’ or aware of times when my pre-judgments are wrong?” Attendees will leave with additional practical interventions as well.