15 resources to fight implicit bias in the legal profession

Kara Wen | June 15, 2022 | Articles

As the legal industry continues to ramp up collective efforts to build greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), a key part of achieving that goal is combating implicit biases. These are thoughts and attitudes people are unaware of holding, stemming from their own unique life experiences. In the context of legal DE&I, implicit biases influence how you act toward people of certain races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities.

When unchecked, unconscious biases can still be just as harmful as intentional discrimination. For example, they lead to a lack of diversity in hiring. They also negatively affect the mental health of employees on the receiving end of repeated stereotyping and microaggressions. BiasSync CEO Michele Ruiz also notes that this type of exclusionary environment directly contributes to legal industry turnover, which costs millions each year.

It’s uncomfortable to unearth and acknowledge your own biases — especially when working in an industry built on impartiality. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t about shaming anyone, as all humans bring certain preconceived notions to the table. As Baker Donelson’s Kennard Davis writes, “implicit biases are not automatically turned off just because we engage in a profession grounded in the principles of, among other things, fairness.” It’s about working together to learn and grow in a positive direction together.

It’s not enough to simply be aware these biases exist — fighting unconscious biases requires conscious effort. These 15 tools will help you and your team move beyond your implicit biases — whether you’re looking to add implicit bias training to an existing DE&I program or want resources to share with your team.

6 programs for challenging implicit bias

1. Implicit Bias Initiative

This free program from the American Bar Association (ABA) Litigation Section includes a PowerPoint presentation, training materials, and a video on the neuroscience behind implicit bias — and it’s under two hours! While it was created for the Litigation Section, the Implicit Bias Initiative holds value for all legal industry members.

The primary learning objectives of the session are:

  • To understand what implicit bias means and how it may influence our decisions
  • Understanding that being implicitly biased doesn’t necessarily mean we act in explicitly biased ways
  • To recognize some behaviors that may suggest bias or differential treatment
  • To learn techniques that help debias perceptions and improve interactions

2. Eight tactics to interrupt and combat implicit bias in the legal profession CLE

Taking a CLE on a DE&I topic is a win-win — you learn how you can make a positive difference while making a dent in your annual credit hours. This 60-minute Lawline course covers the fundamentals of implicit bias and ways to mitigate it, within the context of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. ABA 8.4(g) currently bans “harassment and discrimination based on ‘known’ or ‘explicit’ bias,” but some jurisdictions have recently expanded it to include implicit bias.

3. Guided Conversations Project

This program from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession brings women of color and white women colleagues together to find common ground, bridge gaps in understanding, and “build allyship to promote racial equity.”

As noted on its website, this intersectionality training is easily scalable and can “be as informal as a lunchtime brown-bag discussion or a large-group presentation with a panel
discussion.” In its toolkit, Guided Conversations also includes a list of post-program actions to keep the momentum going.

4. 21-day racial equity habit-building challenge

This 3-week challenge was designed by the ABA Labor & Employment section as a response to the 2020 death of George Floyd and resulting protests and was adopted by the
ABA Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. Each day features a different 15- to 30-minute task teaching participants about “elements of Black history, identity, and culture,
and to the Black community’s experience of racism in America.” The website specifically notes that non-lawyers are welcome to participate as well, so all legal department members can sign up.

5. Ally Toolkit

The ABA Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program educates individuals on how to be supportive allies to LGBTQ+ community members. If you follow
the suggested format and materials, this training is about 3 hours and does a deep dive across topics, from workplace discrimination and bias to how to use LGBTQ+ terminology.

6. Implicit biases and people with disabilities

While not a formal training program, this webpage from the ABA Commission on Disability Rights still offers great resources for understanding and combating biases against people with disabilities. This includes a list of questions designed to unearth general and specific implicit disability biases as well as scenarios for group discussion.

5 resources that bring real-world context to learning

Confronting the harsh realities of a lack of DE&I is no easy feat. This learning process can bring up a whole range of emotions, from anger and guilt to sadness and cynicism. But there is a silver lining–instead of letting these feelings dishearten you, you can use them as motivating factors that drive your work for positive change. By developing a better understanding of prevalent DE&I issues, you can develop more effective solutions to them.

1. Fighting racial bias with an unlikely weapon: Footnotes (Washington Post)

When Michigan State University law professor Justin Simard created the Citing Slavery Project, it put a spotlight on the long history of lawyers citing cases involving enslaved
people as precedent in their arguments. In 2021, Simard convinced Bluebook editors to mandate that cases involving slavery were clearly identified, so they can be placed in
appropriate contexts.

2. Do I belong here? Examining perceived experiences of bias, stereotype concerns, and sense of belonging in U.S. law schools (Journal of Legal Education)

This research paper offers data-driven insight into how bias in law school carries over into the broader legal industry. Elizabeth Bodamer, a Law School Admission Council diversity, equity, and inclusion analyst and senior program manager, studied 17 different law schools to examine how a sense of inclusion in law schools varies across races and genders. She found that “minoritized students,” especially women of color, are more likely to encounter biases and stereotyping than white males.

3. Racism at my job literally gave me PTSD (The Cut)

As someone who’s worked in both law firms and in-house departments, Erika Stallings’ story of sustained workplace discrimination and mistreatment is particularly sobering.
Currently the associate general counsel of music product at Meta, Stallings recounts her former experiences and those of other Black women dealing with diagnosable trauma from
workplace harassment and bias.

4. A tipping point for Asian American lawyers? (Bloomberg Law)

Bloomberg columnist Vivia Chen explains how the 2020 surge of harassment and violence against Asian Americans and discrimination against Asian American lawyers both stem
from the same damaging stereotype: the model minority myth. As Queens College president Frank Wu notes, this paradigm suggests all Asians are “docile, submissive, and
won’t fight back … That also makes them the perfect associate—someone who will work really hard and won’t complain, and someone you don’t have to make partner.”

5. New partners say mental health stigma persists despite law firms’ efforts (American Lawyer)

Columnist Andrew Maloney explores the troubling bias that surrounds attorneys struggling with their mental health, including substance abuse. Approximately 40% of respondents in an American Lawyer survey said they wouldn’t tell their firm they had a mental health problem because they were “too concerned about the firm’s response.” This leads to a further decline in wellbeing and more turnover.

2 articles that acknowledge different views on DE&I

The reality of DE&I work is that not everyone feels the same about it. But refusing to hear another perspective or immediately “canceling” someone who has a different opinion than you do only creates more discord.

Experts say discussion is key to moving the needle on DE&I. As BraveTalk founder Melody Stanford Martin notes, “Even if we think someone is espousing weird or problematic ideas, telling them that we hope for and expect the best from them builds a bridge. Except in extreme cases where someone is saying something blatantly malicious, try to see what value or merit their ideas hold … and someone is more likely to open up and have a real conversation.”

Help your team hone their ability to engage in productive dialogue when opposing perspectives are presented by discussing these pieces:

1. Proposal for mandatory implicit bias training is rejected by Texas bar committee (ABA Journal)

The State Bar of Texas Committee received backlash after voting against mandating Texas attorneys to take an implicit bias course as part of their annual Ethics CLE credits. The
move was spearheaded by then-president-elect Sylvia Borunda Firth, who also led the state bar’s new D&I task force. She claimed mandatory training is problematic because it
doesn’t actually “get the message across” to people resisting it.

The vote came just a year after former Bar president Larry McDougal received calls for his resignation, with a previous online comment he made calling the Black Lives Matter
organization a “terrorist group” surfacing. This is an important conversation to have, as you’re likely to encounter employees who don’t support mandatory DE&I training.

2. Am I the only GC who doesn’t fully embrace implicit bias training? (Littler Mendelson P.C.)

Littler principal and EEO and diversity practice group co-chair Cindy Ann-Thomas offers a well-balanced response to an in-house GC who wrote in to Littler’s “Dear Littler” column. The GC notes how they’re struggling to endorse mandatory implicit bias training at their organization, asking, “What am I missing?” Ann-Thomas addresses the GC’s concerns about risk and criticisms of lip service as well as the damage of implicit bias and proven positive effects of training.

2 films and podcasts for further discussion

1. Video: For White People — Microaggressions in the Workplace (Law.com)

This Law.com video roundtable covers the “‘sustained trauma’ caused by microaggressions toward Black attorneys in the workplace.” The discussion emphasizes the reality that
non-white attorneys are often viewed and treated differently than their peers. It’s an eye-opening discussion that drives home the point that the legal industry isn’t exempt from
the far-reaching effects of racial bias.

2. Podcast: The Jabot (Above the Law)

Named for the collar Ruth Bader Ginsburg wore on the bench, The Jabot podcast centers on “the challenges women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and other diverse populations face in the legal industry.” While there’s a lot of great DE&I content to listen to, we recommend these bias-centric episodes:

Implicit bias in the legal profession won’t go away overnight

New York Public Library general counsel and secretary Michele Coleman Mayes describes the multi-faceted approach to the elimination of bias as requiring both “light” and “heat.” Meaning, education and advocacy (light) must go hand in hand with actively confronting these issues (heat) for lasting change to occur. There’s definitely always work to be done to improve ourselves and the communities we participate in, but making sure you’re not perpetuating models of harm even unintentionally is a great place to start.  If you are wanting to discover more ways to bring light and heat to your debiasing work and overall DE&I strategy, check out how you can drive DE&I internally and champion change across your immediate team, department, and overall business.