From the Dean: Implicit Bias and How it Can Impact the Law

An essential component of training exceptional lawyers is cultivating professional development, especially with client interaction. In addition to teaching how to communicate effectively and other skills, our professors also devote time to the issue of implicit bias and how it can impact the law, legal system and our students’ ability to develop effective client relationships.

Professor Andi Curcio, a leading scholar in this area, has found that a “bias blind spot” exists among many law students and lawyers. Students, she says, assume that their legal training means they can put aside existing biases.

Steven J. Kaminshine

Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law

But, that isn’t the case, Curcio says, especially when it comes to subconscious biases of which the student may not even be aware. Stereotyping starts from a young age, and legal analytical training is unlikely to trump a lifetime of subconscious cognitive processes, she says.

In their Cultural Awareness class, Kendall Kerew, director of the Externship Program, and Kinda Abdus-Saboor, lecturer, challenge students to confront implicit biases through exercises while educating them on how those biases may shape their world views and thus affect client interactions and influence decisions.

Tiffany Williams Roberts (J.D. ’08) also addresses subconscious bias in the Fundamentals of Law class she co-teaches with Professor Clark Cunningham. The attorney-client relationship is the foundational element of a successful partnership, Roberts says, warning that bias can break the relationship if it is not identified and managed: “If we don’t trust a client, we won’t be able to optimize our representation.”

Professor Tanya Washington reinforces this theme in all of her classes. Although it’s a tough and sometimes uncomfortable conversation to have, facilitating these open discussions is important, she says, because everyone has biases. If we are willing to examine them, we can make sure our biases aren’t impairing our effectiveness as lawyers and counselors.

And that is the larger lesson. Bias exists. We have work to do when it comes to hiring and promotion practices of minorities and women, and prejudice still plays out in the courtroom and in legislation. Professors Wendy Hensel and Jonathan Todres share examples of how in this issue.

Ensuring our future lawyers, judges, advocates and legislators are aware of the biased lens through which we all see the world is a necessary step for improving our justice system. Attorneys will be better advocates for their clients. Judges, legislators and others in the legal field who influence and apply the law will also be fairer when making decisions or writing legislation.

Discussing these issues and showing students how to critically reflect on them are essential to developing lawyers who are going to fight for equal justice for everyone.

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