Bias in the legal profession

I 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.