Law Firm Partners Are Unknowingly Racist
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law firm diversity

Summary: A new study discovers an unconscious bias in law firm partners that puts African-American male associates in a more critical position.

There is a lack of diversity in the legal industry, but everyone already knew that. While efforts have been made to hire more female and minority associates, the gap is still large. Surveys completed by associates show that partnership ranks at the firms where they work are overwhelmingly white and male. Nextions conducted a study on law firm partners to determine if there was a bias when evaluating the writing of a male African-American associate.


Nextions, along with five partners at five different law firms, created a research memo that a typical third-year litigation associate would produce. They inserted 22 errors into the memo. The memo was then sent out to 60 partners at 22 law firms that had agreed to participate in a “writing analysis study”. Of the 60 partners, 23 were women, 37 were men, 21 were racial/ethnic minorities, and 39 were Caucasian. The instructions asked the partners to edit the memo for factual, technical, and substantive errors. They were also supposed to rate the memo on a level of 1 to 5, with 1 being bad and 5 being exceptionally well written. They were not asked to comment on the format. Half of the partners were told that the writer was African American; the other half were told the writer was Caucasian. The name of the writer and law school he attended stayed the same.

Fifty-three partners completed the study, 24 African Americans and 29 Caucasians. The memos were identical, but when the writer was African-American, more errors were found and an overall lower score of 3.2 out of 5 was given. The Caucasian writer received a score of 4.1 out of 5. Even though the partners were not asked to comment on the format, 29 wanted formatting changes from the African-American with only 11 for the Caucasian. The gender or race of the partner evaluating the memo did not seem to matter, although women did tend to find more errors and give longer comments.

The findings of the study point towards an inclination that when partners have lower expectations, they are less forgiving of mistakes. The study would need to be redone with each partner reading two memos, one written by an African-American and another by a Caucasian to remove the chance that some partners are just more aware of errors than others.

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Overall, the study points to an alarming trend of partners being more critical of African-American associates because they assume their work will lack quality. There other factors contributing to an associates’ chance of being considered for bonus and promotions, but it appears that African-American males may face tougher expectations that Caucasian males. An unconscious bias is just as damaging as a conscious one.

What do you think of the study’s findings? Tell us in the comments below the article.




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