by Rob Crain
Preparation for becoming President of the Dallas Bar Association includes attending the meetings of the National Conference of Bar Presidents (NCBP). They are twice a year and meet at the same time and location as the American Bar Association’s (ABA) midyear and annual meetings. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about bar associations across the country as well as share ideas to improve our respective associations.
Last year, the NCBP and ABA held a joint luncheon on implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Over the years, I have learned a lot about myself when it comes to implicit bias. Like most people, I like to think of myself as somebody who treats all people the same, regardless of skin color and gender. I am blessed to have parents who are examples of being kind to everybody. My Dad made a point to educate us that others would be hateful to people merely because of the way they looked; he taught us this was wrong and that we should stand up to this kind of hateful conduct. As I became an adult, I thought I had a good track record of being color blind, and I took offense if anyone suggested I was other than color blind.
Kimberly Papillon, an attorney and noted speaker on implicit bias, led the interactive luncheon program last year. Ms. Papillon had the audience interact as images were shown on video screens. She assigned labels (“good” “bad”, etc.) to physical acts like clapping your hands or tapping your lunch table. When you saw a good image, you clapped, when you saw a bad image you tapped the table. As the program continued, the images would be displayed more quickly requiring the brain to process more on an involuntary level. The program was a bit more complicated than that, but you get the picture. Ms. Papillon is a student of neuroscience and how unconscious processes may affect decision making. Her presentation of images and directed responses were designed to reveal our stored biases.
You would think a room full of well-educated, well-intentioned lawyers would be generally in unison with their responses to what is good and bad—far from it. As the images increased in speed, the responses became less and less in unison. Laughter, often nervous laughter, would cascade as people appreciated their responses were inappropriate to the images. Nobody was immune. There were more than 400 people in the room, of all skin colors.
I walked away like most everybody else in the room, appreciating that despite my best intentions, there are biases that have been absorbed by my brain from external sources. Whether the bias was learned from others, television, movies, books, music, etc., they are there. We all have them. None of us are colorblind.
Kathy Nalty’s book, Going All-In on Diversity and Inclusion: The Law Firm Leader’s Playbook, points to a number of blind studies highlighting bias—for example, the same resume being treated disparately because one had a male name and one a female name. Another study involved a writing sample that was carefully crafted with intentional errors and sent to professors for evaluation—the only difference in the writing samples were the names attached to the writing sample that were obvious for ethnic type. The evaluations of samples with white sounding names were more positive and professors found fewer planted errors, while those samples with ethnically diverse names were less positive and graded more severely. What was also evident is that the bias was across the board, women were biased against female resumes at the same rate that men were biased against female resumes, and ethnic minority responders were just as biased against minority writing samples as white responders.
The good news is that you can retrain yourself to think in less-biased and stereotyped ways. As Ms. Nalty states, motivation is the key—“research shows that people who seek to be fair and unbiased are more likely to be successful in purging their biases.” You can, in effect, retrain your brain to overcome implicit bias by changing the underlying associations that form the basis of implicit bias. For lawyers, it is also valuable to understand implicit bias as it affects your trials.
Both in our trial work and in our daily lives, understanding our biases and opening our minds to better understanding each other’s perspectives is extremely important. The DBA is offering several ways to become more involved in these practices during 2017. The first is on March 10, when Rhonda Hunter, DBA’s first African-American President, will lead a presentation at the Belo Mansion on implicit bias. She will be joined by Paulette Brown, Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association; Sarah Redfield, Professor Emerita at the University of New Hampshire; and Wei Wei Jeang, Partner at Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. Their seminar will teach you how implicit bias affects your trials, whether civil, criminal or juvenile. This seminar will also help those not involved in trial work. It can help you in your transactional business, corporate environment, non-profit relationships, and in your daily lives in general.
Another way that you can become involved in these practices is by joining the DBA as we partner with the 2017 Year of Unity, which provides unique gatherings for people to discuss race and to better understand each other’s perspectives. The DBA has already participated in a dinner program where 600 people from across the metroplex came together in small gatherings to break bread and talk about race. We will have at least three more dining opportunities this year. Please follow the DBA on Facebook or Twitter, or pay attention to the website as events are announced.
I can tell you I walked out of Ms. Papillon’s lunch program more aware of my implicit biases. In some ways it was a sad appreciation, but it is comforting to know that we are all in this together, and that we can do something about it.