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How Does Unconscious Bias Negatively Affect Diversity and Inclusion?
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Photo courtesy of Law Sarasota.

Summary: Law firms lack racial minorities and women, and one expert claims this is because of unconscious bias. 

Studies have shown that women and minorities are lacking representation in law firms. While law firms have been active in trying to change these statistics, it is a problem that continues. But why?


One hypothesis is unconscious bias. Attorney-turned-career coach Bernard Knight said that the concept of people making decisions based on their backgrounds caused the law firm environment to stay the same, which is full of mostly white men.

“Unconscious bias prevents law firms, corporations and government agencies from hiring the best talent and retaining that talent. Bias against those that are not in the majority group generally is not intentional. We are all biased no matter our race, gender, sexual orientation or other differentiators,” Knight wrote on IP Watchdog.

Knight said that it is human to have an unconscious bias, but when people prefer people just like them, diversity and inclusion doesn’t happen. He said this can lead to high attrition rates and fewer promotions for minority lawyers. Knight said that an environment that isn’t diverse or inclusive can be “less productive and innovative.”

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“When we are in large organizations, we unconsciously seek out affiliations with those who are like us for support and comfort,” Knight wrote. “For example, I sought out the only other gay partner in my firm in the DC office for friendship and camaraderie.  The majority group generally is not aware of this but the diversity group is keenly aware.  This is the insider-outsider group dynamic.”

Knight said that the majority is generally unaware of the feelings of the minority groups and that when minorities feel powerless as outsiders, they do not feel comfortable at work. This can lead to them quitting or not performing as well as they could, which continues the cycle of homogeny at law firms.

Homogeny does not lead to innovation, according to Knight, but another reason that law firms should care about diversity is that clients do.

Last year, 30 law firms pledged to implement the “Mansfield Rule,” which requires management to interview at least one minority candidate whenever hiring for top positions. Clients such as 3M commended the initiative because they said that they are looking for diverse firms.

“We believe diversity and inclusion help make us a more innovative and competitive company, and the same is true for our suppliers and outside counsel. The Mansfield Rule Client Forum is an innovative way for us to recognize law firms that are trying something new to further boost diversity in their top ranks,” a representative from 3M said.

What do you think of Bernard Knight’s theory on unconscious bias? Let us know in the comments below.


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