What is implicit bias and why is it important?
Implicit biases are attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding of members of certain social groups without our conscious knowledge. Implicit biases are formed by personal experiences and outside influences such as our families, friends, colleagues, and the media. Understanding our implicit biases is important because experts believe our unconscious thoughts are responsible for about 80 percent of our thought processes, which translates into actions.
How does implicit bias affect lawyers?
Affinity bias is one of the more prominent implicit biases to affect lawyers. Affinity bias is a natural and unconscious tendency to socialize, develop friendships, and build trust relationships with other people who are like you because you feel a connection or similarity to them.
Affinity bias plays out in the legal community in many ways. Some of the most frequent ways relate to hiring, mentoring, and promotion. For example, consider a white, male, able-bodied senior partner at a law firm—not an uncommon scenario. This partner has a say in hiring, promotion, salaries, and general firm activities. He also has the capacity to mentor and share opportunities with junior lawyers. The reality is that if this partner is not aware of his affinity bias, he will make decisions based on it, which will result in racially/ethnically diverse, disabled, LGBTQ, and female attorneys having less access to opportunities for jobs, mentorship, networking, training, development, fair compensation, and promotion. It is not intentional. But the impact is real and felt.
Interrupting affinity bias and other implicit biases is all of our responsibility and can only be accomplished if we each do our part.
Below are five actions attorneys can take to help interrupt implicit bias.
1. Be aware: take an implicit bias test
Everybody has implicit biases. To help interrupt those biases, it is helpful to learn which areas or groups towards which you have implicit biases. You can take a free implicit bias test online at: implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html. Once you are aware of your implicit biases, you can be more conscious and diligent about your desire to interrupt those biases.
2. Participate: join an affinity bar association
One of the best ways to interrupt implicit biases is to spend time with people who have a different social identity (race, religion, gender, age, etc.) than you do. You become more comfortable with people who are different by spending time with them. Exposure to people with different social identities also provides you with examples that are counter to negative stereotypes and helps break down those negative stereotypes.
An easy way for lawyers to spend time with other lawyers who have a different social identity than they do is to join an affinity bar organization.
3. Contribute: volunteer to mentor
A third way to interrupt implicit bias is to volunteer to mentor a young attorney with a different social identity. Just like joining an affinity bar organization, listening to a mentee and providing advice will help you spend time with an individual who is different than you and open your eyes to a different perspective. The relationship you build with your mentee can also create positive associations and reduce stereotyping, both of which can help interrupt implicit biases.
4. Engage: co-write or co-present
Just like joining an affinity bar association or mentoring a junior attorney, working on projects with attorneys that have a different social identity than you do can help interrupt implicit biases. So the next time you are writing an article, or presenting a CLE, consider partnering with a diverse attorney to co-write or co-present.
5. Advocate: secure equity in your sphere of influence
We all have a different sphere of influence. Use that influence to advocate for the equitable distribution of power, resources, and opportunities.
This can take on many different forms. For example, if you serve on the management committee at your firm, advocate to initiate and empower a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. If you serve on the hiring committee, invite UNLV’s Black Law Students Association, La Voz (the Latino/ Hispanic Law Student Association) and the OUTLaws to interview at your office. If you have an opportunity to pitch a new client, bring another lawyer with a different social identity with you.
About the author
Mary Bacon, Esq. is a partner at Spencer Fane. Mary’s litigation practice is focused on complex civil litigation in both state and federal court involving construction disputes, breach of contract actions, and defending financial institutions.
About this article
This article was originally published in the “Racial Justice” issue of Communiqué, the official publication of the Clark County Bar Association, (February 2021). See https://clarkcountybar.org/about/member-benefits/communique-2021/communique-february-2021/.
© 2021 Clark County Bar Association (CCBA). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any portion of this issue is allowed without written permission from the publisher. Editorial policy available upon request.