Bias in the legal profession

gavel stock image MslnI recently took an online CLE — continuing legal ed seminar — on Eliminating Bias, presented by Maryland lawyer Steven Vinick. Vinick presented some recent statistics from the American Bar Association on the makeup of the bar that surprised me. No, they astonished me.


Gender, 2015:
Male – 65%
Women – 35%

Vinick cites articles noting that despite this figure, roughly 16-19% of partners are women, and that women in elite law firms earn on average $66,000 less a year than men.

Race, in 2010: 
White – 88%
Black – 5%
Hispanic – 4%
Asian-Pacific American – 3%
Native American – <1%

The seminar did not include stats on disabilities or sexual orientation.

What stuns me is that this is what the profession looks like after years of women and people of color attending law school in greater numbers. Visnick notes that a client who values diversity may have trouble finding a suitable law firm, and if the client is looking to hire a law firm for a civil rights matter, this can be particularly important.

I’m not saying a white lawyer can’t do a damned fine job for a black client in a civil rights claim, or that lawyers of color must do that kind of work; I’m talking about perceptions here. Certainly statistics alone do not establish that bias exists in a particular interaction. But if this is what our profession looks like, it makes it hard for clients to believe they’ll get representation free of bias, let alone bias-free results.

Vinick points out that the legal profession is less racially diverse than most other professions, and that the makeup of most law firms would look like intentional discrimination in a private company. (And publishing, alas, isn’t much better. Lee & Low’s new survey on diversity in publishing shows that the field is about 79% white, 78% female, and 88% straight.)

Other studies Vinick quoted report that 57% of women thought judges appear to give less weight to women lawyers’ arguments, while only 12% of men thought so. 63% of women but only 19% of men said demeaning jokes or remarks against women were made “often or sometimes” in court or chambers. No doubt some would say women are “too sensitive,” but the point is that people who are not subject to a particular type of bias are far less likely to see that bias.

The good news is that more and more CLE and in-house training addresses conscious and unconscious bias. Law firms are becoming increasingly aware that discrimination can violate the rules governing the profession. The ABA, state bars, and individual law firms are talking about the issues. The Washington State Bar journal, the NW Lawyer, is running a lengthy series of articles addressing elements of diversity and bias, and I suspect other state bars are as well.

Where there’s talk, there’s hope for change.

So if you’re writing about fictional lawyers, judges, and court staff, think about these issues. How do they affect the dynamics? The spoken and unspoken, the conscious and unconscious motivations, the perceptions of whether justice is truly attainable.

The Saturday Writing Quote — fear and doubt

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“I think it’s a good thing to doubt yourself every so often. That means you aren’t settling for mediocre. You’ll hit a stretch of writing that will better than you could have imagined, then the doubts will disappear, and you’ll be back on track. It might happen again, but those times make us better writers.”

— Polly Iyer, American novelist

Character opportunities: breath tests for pot and a “check the box” ruling

Cannabis_sativa_001Last year, I took you along with me to a marijuana business law course I took, thinking that the increase in legal medicinal and recreational use of pot offers some good potential story complications. Here’s part 1 and part 2. 

But there are other legal issues as well. This NPR piece reports on efforts to develop a reliable breath test for THC, the intoxicating ingredient in marijuana. New scientific evidence always requires evidentiary testing before it will be admissible in court, so the effort could continue for years, even after scientists develop a reasonably reliable test. Your characters might wrangle over the test itself, over admissibility, over uses in employment, and other ways, as characters do.

gavel stock image MslnAnother development with potential ramifications for your fictional employers and employees: What’s sometimes called “the box,” where a job applicant indicates whether she’s ever been charged with or convicted of a crime. The Pennsylvania high court has now ruled unconstitutional a state law preventing convicted criminals from getting full-time jobs in nursing homes or long-term-care facilities, because a lifetime ban did not serve the statutory purpose of protecting the elderly. Here’s the NPR summary. The laws are applied in many situations; does one hold your character back?

The Saturday Writing Post — on inspiration

heart key“Ideas that most inspire me embrace me, as if I’ve walked right into their arms. These are ideas for which I know I can sustain interest. They have a magical, alluring quality. They sing with resonance and everything else recedes. My heart beats fast. I recognize the idea. I call this experience “the quickening.”
… Creative people are energetically curious. They have honed their expertise in some area so well that they become sensitive to its nuances. They need no external validation and they can bypass self-censoring mechanisms. All of this can be fertile ground for the quickening.”

— Katherine Ramsland, InSinC, the Sisters in Crime quarterly, March 2015, “Best Source for Inspiration: The Quickening”

Writing about cops? Changes in police training

th_badgeThese articles on the changes in police training are several months old, but still very interesting, exploring the changes introduced in Washington State by the new director of the Criminal Justice Training Academy, former King County (Seattle and environs) Sheriff Sue Rahr. Part I focuses on Rahr and the academy; part II looks at the training from the recruits’ perspective. And in May, NPR interviewed Rahr and a New Jersey police chief on changing police attitudes on the use of force.

What book is that again? Pepper’s bookshelf

IMGP1761Like me, Pepper, the main character in my Seattle Spice Shop series, is a mystery reader. She often mentions books she’s reading. One of her updates to the Spice Shop has been to expand the book section, adding more cookbooks, memoirs and chef lit, and even foodie fiction. When Pepper drops into the Seattle Mystery Bookshop (a real place), to consult with Jen, a former paralegal who now sells books, Jen gives her several recommendations.

By reader request, here’s Pepper’s reading list:

assault and pepperPepper’s bookshelf, in ASSAULT & PEPPER:
Salt, Mark Kurlansky
Salted, Mark Bitterman
Skippyjon Jones: Lost in SpiceJudith Schachner

Pepper learns a lot about herbs and investigating from Brother Cadfael, created by Ellis Peters, reading A Morbid Taste for Bones, One Corpse Too Many, and Monk’s Hood, as well as the Cadfael Companion, Ellis Peters and Robin Whiteman, and Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden, Rob Talbot and Robin Whiteman.

The Spice Shop also carries the Teashop Mysteries by Laura Child, the Domestic Diva Mysteries by Krista Davis, the Coffeehouse Mysteries by Cleo Coyle, and Key West Food Critic Mysteries by Lucy Burdette. Jen recommends a reader traveling to Erin consider Sheila Connolly’s County Cork series, Erin Hart’s archaeological mysteries, and when Pepper nears the end of the Cadfael series, Jen suggests the Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer and Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne.

Guilty as CinnamonPepper’s faves in GUILTY AS CINNAMON:
In her second outing, Pepper is celebrating cinnamon, and displays several mysteries in the shop: Cinnamon Skin, John D. MacDonald, Cinnamon Kiss, Walter Mosley, and The Cinnamon Roll Murder by Joanne Fluke.

She draws inspiration from The Servant’s Tale and The Outlaw’s Tale by Margaret Frazer. Her friend Callie, a law librarian and avid baker, drools over a cookbook called Sugar Rush.

And after she’s solved the crimes, Pepper’s staff gives her a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Private Investigating, by Steven Kerry Brown. What, they couldn’t have given it her before she found—nevermind. No spoilers here!

In GUILTY AS CINNAMON, Pepper also discovers music by the Portland Cello Project.

The Saturday Writing Quote — on inspiration

IMGP2188An editor should “quibble and inspire at the same time. … You have to believe in the writer’s work, be curious about the issues being explored, and help the writer focus on the best means of realizing whatever seems most essential. Then, after the work is done, [the editor has] to be able to articulate why it matters, why a bunch of preoccupied strangers ought to sop whatever they are doing to focus on this book. So, editors are effective through a combination of discernment and conviction and persuasiveness.”
— editorJonathan Karp, in The Writer, Aug 2012