What is Implicit Bias and Why is it Important?

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court implemented a rule requiring newly admitted lawyers to complete the “Practicing with Professionalism” course, which I did a few weeks ago. This eight hour course touches on several topics, but one topic I found particularly useful was that of multicultural competency in lawyering.

We began this segment of the course by participating in an exercise where pictures of cars were displayed on the projector and in groups, we were to guess the demographics of that car’s driver. The whole auditorium envisioned the driver of the sleek BMW to be a middle-aged male. Likewise, the consensus was that the soccer mom drove the minivan. These associations are the product of implicit bias (i.e. stereotypes) and while this exercise with the cars was lighthearted, implicit bias can have dangerous implications when positive or negative associations are linked to people or groups of people.

Lawyers will work with clients and potential clients of all different ages, genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, nationalities, etc., making multicultural competence extremely important to a successful attorney-client relationship. To achieve multicultural competence, lawyers must confront their own implicit biases and be aware of what biases they hold. It is normal to develop biases because throughout the course of life, people have interacted and continue with countless social groups and people, causing these positive and negative associations to form based upon our experiences. Although it is normal to have biases, they can affect decision-making and ultimately, the caliber of representation a lawyer provides.

To overcome these biases, first, one must engage in honest self-reflection and actively locate both positive and negative biases held. When these biases are present in an issue, additional measures should be taken to mitigate the influence the bias may have. Using note-taking or other types of information processing can help to ensure that a decision is logical and merit-based, rather than influenced by bias. This type of processing allows for opportunities to catch when biases are creeping into the thought process. Allotting more time or discussing with teammates for cases where a bias is present also serves to safeguard decisions from bias. This ensures that the reasoning behind a decision is grounded in strategy and merit.

The law applies to all people and lawyers must confront their own biases to better represent the diverse clientele to whom the law applies to. By being self-aware and active about one’s own implicit bias is the first step to combatting the harm these biases cause.

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