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Acknowledging Implicit Biases

By Pat Wilson

Untitled Document
Princeton: Say, Kate, can I ask you a question?
Kate Monster: Sure!
Princeton: Well, you know Trekkie Monster upstairs?
Kate Monster: Uh huh.
Princeton: Well, he’s Trekkie Monster, and you’re Kate Monster.
Kate Monster: Right.
Princeton: You’re both Monsters.
Kate Monster: Yeah.
Princeton: Are you two related?
Kate Monster: What?! Princeton, I’m surprised at you! I find that racist!
Princeton: Oh, well, I’m sorry! I was just asking!
Kate Monster: Well, it’s a touchy subject. No, not all Monsters are related. What are you trying say, huh? That we all look the same to you?

The dialog above sets up the song, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist from the Broadway musical, “Avenue Q.”  Beyond the catchy tune, the song acknowledges something we know is true: we all harbor biases about different people based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and a host of other categories like Southerner or Yankee.

With this post, we continue our focus on cultural intelligence, the challenge for the month of July.  We noted in the first blog post on this challenge that developing cultural intelligence involves five steps.  With this post, we discuss the third step, addressing implicit bias.  We challenge you to address the implicit bias you may have learned along the way.

As the song from Avenue Q notes, bigotry has never been exclusively white; we all harbor biases, some overt biases and some implicit or unconscious biases because we are human.  Experts believe that implicit biases are the result of adaptive behavior, the need to “function at maximum capacity by finding patterns among information or events or groups of individuals as a way of enabling us to make decisions without really thinking about it” according to Dr. Kierra S. Barnett, a post-doctoral researcher at the Kirwan Institute.   Dr. Michelle van Ryan, a professor at the Oregon Health and Science University School of Nursing notes that, “[I]mplicit biases are basically this [learning] system applying whatever information [the system has] learned, even if it’s negative and inaccurate, to whole groups of people.”  

That an individual harbors biases doesn’t make him or her a bad person, unless, that individual refuses to acknowledge their own biases or acts out of those biases in ways that cause tangible harm to the people with whom they interact or the organizations with which they work.  Plenty of studies in the health care field document the effects implicit bias can have on patient care.  For examples, see here and here

But the impact of implicit bias is not limited to health care.  Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan conducted a field study to answer the question, “Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”  Bertrand and Mullainathan discovered, using fictitious resumes to respond to help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston, that having a name associated with African Americans (like Jamal and Lakisha) resulted in significantly fewer callbacks for interviews than those candidates assumed to be white because of names like Emily and Greg, even though the credentials were the same.

We in the legal field are not immune to unconscious bias. Researchers from the leadership consulting firm Nextion submitted a legal memo drafted by five law firm partners from different firms to some 53 other partners at 22 law firms who agreed to participate in a writing analysis study, in which they would evaluate the submitted memo.    All evaluators were told the memo was written by Thomas Meyer, a third-year associate who was a graduate of NYU Law School.  However, approximately half of the evaluators were told the hypothetical Thomas Meyer was black; the other half were told he was white.  The average evaluation of the memo by the white Thomas Meyer scored almost a full point higher than that of the black Thomas Meyer, 4.1 versus 3.2.  The Nextion researchers were clever; they intentionally inserted 22 errors into the memo.  The evaluators of the black Thomas Meyer were more likely to find those errors than the evaluators of the white Thomas Meyer.

We urge you to consider your own biases, particularly your implicit biases.  If you have not taken one of the implicit attitude tests that are part of a Harvard study and meant to disclose unconscious biases, I urge you to take one here.  We acknowledge that the Harvard has its detractors, but that the IAT may be flawed is not evidence that implicit bias doesn’t exist.  Rather, measuring it may be difficult.

Finally, I encourage you to review at least the executive summary of the ABA study, You Can’t Change What You Can’t See:  Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession.  It outlines four patterns of bias in the legal profession:  1) prove-it-again bias; 2) tightrope bias; 3) maternal wall bias; and 4) tug of war bias.  Consider whether you, or your firm or organization, may have unwittingly slipped into these patterns.   Implicit biases are difficult to change, but we can start by acknowledging them. 


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A Reflective Exercise to Try with a Growth Mindset Challenge

By Leah Teague


During the first few days of the ABA’s 21 day Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge, we are directed to assess our grit and determine our mindset. Key phrases that resonated with me:  

  • Grit:  the Power of Passion and Perseverance (described in Dr. Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on Grit).
  • The Power of Yet.  Professor Carol Dweck labels Growth Mindset as “the power of yet” because you believe that you can improve. She adds that people with growth mindsets are “luxuriating in the power of yet” while those with a fixed mindset are “gripped in the tyranny of now.”

Both phrases remind us to value and reward effort, strategy and progress as we evaluate our students’ current performance. Helping our students push themselves out of their comfort zones in healthy directions allows them to learn and develop in new ways.

Fear of failure and rejection can often be a barrier to new learning and a growth mindset. In Chapter 7 of Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership, we offer a reflection exercise for students in a leadership class or program designed to help them normalize failure as an acceptable aspect of learning and growing.

You’re Not Perfect and That’s Okay!

Think about a mistake you made in the last couple weeks, preferably one that is not too emotionally charged. It could be anything – a mistake you made while learning something new, maybe you misunderstood the instructions for a task at work and did it incorrectly, or maybe a social faux pas where you said something you wish you hadn’t, or you snapped at someone and regretted it later. 

  1. What happened? What were the consequences? Did you have the opportunity to correct the mistake? If so, how did it go and how did it make you feel? 
  2. Create and complete a reflection chart:

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Monthly Challenge: Adding Growth Mindset to Grit Leads to Progress

By Leah Teague


“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.
The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” 
– Thomas Edison

Following up on our Grit Challenge and as a companion to the ABA’s 21 day Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge (which starts today), we focus on Growth Mindset, one of the five concepts we view as foundational to Leadership of Self. We will address the remaining three: feedback, failure, and resilience in future posts. Grit strengthens students’ persistence in the face of challenges they face in the demands of law school or the practice of law. As their grit improves, they both address challenges and persevere through them with greater aplomb. They likewise learn to apply grit in circumstances beyond school and career. Beyond grit, however, leaders need to learn to take risks.

Our profession is filled with risk-averse lawyers who embrace the status quo and hate to fail or be criticized. They endorse the maxim “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” These characteristics can be protective, helping us serve clients and avoiding unnecessary risk, but those same tendencies reinforce a fixed mindset. Stanford professor Carol Dweck, the leading researcher on mindset, found that a person with a self-view or mindset that their qualities and abilities are fixed or unchangeable will “want to prove [themselves] correct over and over rather than learning from [their] mistakes.

As we think about law school environment and culture, one can argue that the traditional approaches to legal education promote a fixed mindset since failure is punished and success is rewarded by grades, law review appointments, and ultimately jobs. But a student who never learns to fail—and consequently grow – is a student who may be tempted to cover up mistakes rather than own them. Lawyers who do this may find themselves facing disciplinary action or client ire. These consequences of settling into a fixed mindset heighten the importance of introducing fixed vs. growth mindset theory early in law school and teaching skills to embrace and develop a growth mindset. Helping students lean into a growth mindset both develops their intellectual curiosity and provides a better approach for dealing with adversity in law school and beyond.

Since recognizing the tendency toward a fixed mindset is fundamental to understanding the issue, we begin our coverage of growth mindset by having our students take The Mindset Quiz. We encourage you to do so as well. How “fixed” is your mindset? Next week we will share more about our development techniques for Leadership of Self fundamentals.

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Will you join the ABA 21-Day Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge?

By Leah Teague


The past pandemic year has highlighted how much we all need to develop our grit and growth mindset! Making time to develop these skills, however, can be challenging. Where and how do I start?

My first exposure to the formal study of grit and growth mindset was through the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession’s Grit Project. We reference several of their scenarios in our textbook and use them as case studies in our leadership class. On June 2, 2021, the Grit Project is launching a 21-Day Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge. We are planning to participate and hope you will too!

By registering for the challenge, we will receive daily emails with content for the 21 Days of Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge. The challenge consists of a 5-15 minute daily commitment to growing your grit through listening to TED Talks and podcasts or reading articles. The goal: to inspire and help us to “develop good habits to exercise your grit (perseverance and passion for long-term goals) and growth mindset (the belief that you can improve in your abilities).” You can do the daily activities on your own or form a Grit Group to unpack the challenges and learnings together.

The 2021 21-Day Grit and Growth Mindset Challenge kicks off on June 2 with an exciting webinar featuring Alison Levine, mountain climber and grit expert. Register for this inspiring webinar here! If you are ready to start on your own grit and growth jury, though, you do not need to wait for June 2. It’s always a good time to get grittier!

Click on the Challenge website, available now, for a preview of the 21 Days. To receive e-mail reminders to complete each part of the challenge, go to sign up. The emails start June 7, 2021.

I hope your summer is off to a great start!

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The legal profession doesn’t have a leadership problem- it has a character problem

In case you missed it: “The legal profession doesn’t have a leadership problem—it has a character problem”, by Charles Edwards. Mr. Edwards post in the ABA Journal is wonderful write-up on the importance of character in leadership. As Leah and I frequently discuss with law students, leadership alone is not enough – ethical leadership is the key to long-term success. By integrating best practices into leadership courses, we are preparing our students for their future roles.

If you haven’t read it yet, Mr. Edwards post is worth the read: http://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/the-legal-profession-doesnt-have-a-leadership-problem-it-has-a-character-problem

-SLR

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Article Callout: Lawyer Leadership Secrets to Success

In case you missed it: “Lawyer Leadership Secrets to Success” by Liam Montgomery. In the style of Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (authors of Extreme Ownership), Mr. Montgomery translates lessons learned in military service to leadership for lawyers. In this article he focuses upon giving and receiving feedback – a critical skill for any leader. The article is definitely worth the read if you’re looking for more feedback material to give to students: http://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/lawyer-leadership-secret-to-success

Academia, Leadership

Why do we not have more leadership development programs in law school?

By Stephen Rispoli

Law is a Leadership Degree

For starters, we must recognize that as lawyers, as professionals, we are expected to be leaders in society.  “A lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.[1]” We have an obligation to serve not only our clients but also society. Our legal training and professional status afford us daily opportunities to influence individuals, organizations and communities.  

In many ways, legal training is implicitly leadership development training. Faculty are teaching and modeling leadership in the classroom and beyond; however, we are not teaching leadership intentionally. We must help our students understand that their professional obligation is to serve their clients and their communities. Their professional opportunities will enable them to lead and to be change-makers. If we see ourselves as problem solvers and trusted advisors instead of deal killers and hired guns, maybe the public will see us that way too.

We can start developing lawyer-leaders intentionally by reframing the way we think about leadership development training. Law faculties are equipped to participate. Because they are lawyers, they have served in a variety of leadership roles, including as professors in the classroom. Leadership goes on every day, in every classroom. Faculty can more intentionally model leadership and help students see themselves as leaders. Students, from observing our interactions and actions, learn how to address colleagues and classmates, how to treating others with respect, and what it means to be a professional. But faculty can also encourage one of the most fundamental aspects of leadership – intellectual curiosity – as a way of life. Law professors can equip students with knowledge, skills and strategies that will help them be successful in dealing with, and leading, people and organizations.

The majority of law school applicants provide personal statements that express their desire to go to law school because they want to make a difference, to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, or to make our communities better. Don’t we owe it to them to equip them with more than just the ability to critically analyze an issue? Don’t we want to make sure we set them up for success, not only in the practice of law but also in the many other arenas in which they will serve?


[1] The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Preamble: A Lawyer’s Responsibilities,