The First Panel: Implicit Bias and Its Effect on Lawyers

by Chris Fortier

The opening panel, Implicit Bias, at the Forum (Dee Norman – VSB). Marni Byrum, Dean Spanos, Maura Weiner, and Tammy Currie open the Forum. https://www.facebook.com/virginiastatebar/photos/a.2474654669296422/2474656022629620/?type=3&theater 

As sworn guardians of the rule of law, lawyers have a special duty to conduct themselves in an honorable manner, free of bias against individuals based on the color of their skin or other similar personal characteristics.  As human beings, on the other hand, we are all vulnerable to ingrained stereotypes that can affect how we think about and act toward others who are different than ourselves. While often completely unintentional, this implicit bias can seriously affect the quality of justice.  A panel at the Forum explored the concept of implicit bias and its impact on the legal profession. The panel used examples such as jury selection and employment litigation in addition to interactive case studies to demonstrate contexts in which implicit bias may arise and the way the law can address such situations.  

Tammy H. Currie, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, Maura Burke Weiner, of JuryMatters, Inc., and Dean Sparlin, Esq., of the Sparlin Law Office, led the panel, and the lively discussion from the conference attendees.   

The program Opened with a video from P&G with an African American man wandering the street and in various locales. Each time, they showed people staring at him, implying that he should not be there. The video ended with him opening court on the bench.  The crowd discussed the video and their reactions. Attendees reported multiple instances of stares and comment from (not improved from years ago) people thinking they were not attorneys. Personal appearance and appearance of clients became a topic of discussion.  Attendees then discussed whether judges and mentors create outcomes based on personal appearance.

In the video, a girl looks out to the man’s son, and instantaneously her mother rolls up the window. One attendee observed that this incident shows that this behavior is trained. The attendee urged others to break the cycle.  Others noted how the video highlighted the isolating experience of man throughout his daily activities. One attendee asked, “can you just do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do?”

Attendees communicated their thoughts and feelings stemming from the video.  One attendee observed that the internet makes things worse with people broadcasting more views and more bias. Another noted that people of color are subject to the same biases that classify people incorrectly.  “Once you open your mouth, people adjust their thinking. Fear is a major driver of behavior.” One attendee communicated concern about the appearance of impact outcomes of cases, sometimes with judges rejecting deals as they refuse to deal with attorneys.

Other attendees reminded the Forum that “we will not always see forward progress in a straight line.  But we are seeing forward progress.” Others disagreed noting that fashion choices (such as piercings) are still under scrutiny.  

Ms. Weiner concluded the program by noting that we all have implicit bias and it consists of four aspects: 1) it is pervasive, 2) many of us are unaware of it, 3) implicit bias predicts our behavior, and 4) people who have diverse experiences and are exposed to variances are more tolerant and understanding.

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Chris Fortier serves on the Board of the Governors of the Diversity Conference, working on the Invictus newsletter and the Diversity Conference website and social media. In his day job, he works at the Social Security Administration (SSA). The views in this article are his and his alone and do not reflect those of SSA or the Federal Government.

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