The legal profession, like many others, has been working hard to be more diverse and inclusive, and it is making strides in the right direction. According to NALP’s most recent Report on Diversity at U.S. Law Firms, “[the 2021] summer associate class was the most diverse ever measured in every way, and it holds the promise of a law firm would that is truly more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.” In Colorado, we benefit from many organizations that have been promoting diversity for a long time, including the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, which offers frequent, well-attended trainings on diversity in our profession. Programs like Law School Yes We Can! and the Colorado Pledge to Diversity work to build a more diverse pipeline of young lawyers. And the Denver Law Firm Coalition for Racial Equity works to advance racial equity among some of the city’s largest firms.
But there is still more work to do. As the NALP report acknowledged “the challenge for the industry is to retain, train, develop, and promote this talented and diverse pool of new lawyers so that 5 years from now the associate ranks as a whole reflect similar diversity and representation, and 10 or 15 years from now we can celebrate a partnership class this is similarly diverse.”
On February 9, 2022, the CWBA hosted a webinar that was meant to address exactly that issue. With support from the Colorado Bar Association, the Denver Bar Association, and Proff Law the CWBA presented “Interrupting Bias: Feedback, Due Diligence, and Reference Checks,” which took a deep dive into the unconscious biases that can oftentimes saturate attorney reviews and therefore attorney success.
CWBA Judicial Committee Co-Chairwoman Hetal Doshi, an assistant U.S. attorney, opened the event by explaining the genesis of the event: CWBA members conducting due diligence checks of judicial nominees noticed that negative feedback–like a nominee not being “polished” or “professional”–was disproportionately provided about nominees from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Leila Hock, Chief Growth Officer at Diversity Lab, explained that the webinar was designed to address such instances of bias, as well as those in feedback conversations and reference checks.
The right woman for the job, the event’s keynote speaker, was Siri Chilazi. Ms. Chilazi, a research fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School, braids together academic and industry practices to advance gender equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. She was an energetic, engaging expert speaker who translated complex research findings into practical solutions.
The problem of unconscious bias in feedback and evaluations is well documented. Ms. Chilazi highlighted several examples of unconscious bias from the research. In one study, judges responsible for parole decisions were much harsher on defendants when they were hungry, as opposed to when they were satiated. In another, a law practice’s internal evaluations showed that leadership was mentioned in 80% of white women’s evaluations but in only 9.5% of employees’ of color evaluations. Errors were mentioned more frequently in employees’ of color evaluations than in white employees’ evaluations. Such bias cuts across industries and the professional hierarchy. Ms. Chilazi explained that unconscious bias is natural: our unconscious brains rely on patterns and experiences. We’re more likely to rely on patterns when we’re stressed, pressed for time, or cognitively overwhelmed. That’s not inherently bad. But problems arise when unconscious bias affects our decision-making. Merely being aware of our own unconscious bias isn’t enough. We need to shape our environments and decision-making processes to overcome it.
So what’s the solution? One-off trainings make only a short-term impact, according to the research, doing very little to change medium- or long-term behavior. We must make changes to the process. Ms. Chilazi offered several frameworks for spotting and interrupting bias in feedback conversations. She urged participants to look out for “blur” comments that blur the line between subjective and objective (e.g., “I’m not sure this candidate is qualified to serve on the bench. They come across as closed-off and standoffish… I’m also concerned that this candidate is not polished enough”). To detect blur comments, we can ask ourselves: is this comment stereotypical? Could it be interpreted differently by different people? Is it about skills and abilities or personality? Is it a generalization?
Ms. Chilazi encouraged attendees to interrupt bias by asking those giving feedback to “show your work.” In response to blur comments, consider asking for specific behavioral examples, with a focus on results or achievements. We might also ask the feedback providers to compare the candidate against similar people they know; this encourages fair and consistent comments. Asking the same questions in the same order has the same effect. Observations about recent events are less likely to be biased, as are those about the impact of a person’s behavior. Finally, it’s important that we calibrate our own impressions across multiple feedback conversations.
Participants put these tactics into practice with topical role-plays on conducting a judicial due diligence check; having a conversation about partnership promotion, and engaging in a feedback discussion. For an example of what this looks like on the ground, check out this Harvard Business Review article, “How One Company Worked to Root Out Bias from Performance Reviews,” which Ms. Chilazi pointed participants to.
With these tools in our toolbox, CWBA members are well equipped to interrupt bias in feedback. How might you put these tools to use in your workplace? Let’s keep this important conversation going and hold one another accountable.
Isabel J. Broer is an Assistant Attorney General in the K-12 Education Unit of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. She previously clerked for Justice Monica M. Márquez and Judge Christine M. Arguello. Prior to attending Harvard Law School, Isabel taught ninth grade algebra in the Denver Public Schools. She enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and reading in her free time.