Implicit Bias: BigLaw’s Diversity Problem


If the question were to be asked, most managing partners and shareholders in Colorado and beyond would talk about their firms’ commitment to diversity, to hiring and retaining minority associates and making them feel welcome. They might even talk about them as assets to the profession at large, how clients demand a cultural mix, how difficult it is to find them and, even more so, to keep them.

But in practice, it could be unconscious mental shortcuts that impact diversity issues within the legal profession as well as society at large.

“It’s widespread. It’s not just the culture of law firms — that would have been significant enough — but also the hiring, retention and promotion policies that have been systematically tainted with implicit biases,” said Eli Wald, a law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Wald specializes in legal ethics and researches both explicit and implicit prejudice in large law firms. Implicit bias specifically has been an emerging research area over the last decade, he said. It’s a phenomenon that can claim even the most progressive of managing partners.

Implicit biases or attitudes are “positive or negative evaluations that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control,” according to Harvard’s Project Implicit. While there is an explicit intention associated with the idea of discrimination, emerging research suggests those unconscious attitudes could be a major factor in the practical disadvantages experienced by women and minorities.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the March 23, 2015 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.