Unconscious bias training—make or break for law firms?

Law firm diversity, inclusion in the workplace and reducing unconscious bias have fast become some of the key priorities for the legal industry. A recruiter’s unconscious bias, whether it relates to gender, race, or another diversity factor, can mean the difference between one candidate securing a legal position over another. As the industry strives to be more inclusive, could unconscious bias training be the key? 

Embarking on a legal career is by no means an easy feat. There’s the excessive reading, the university’s Law Society networking events, and let’s not forget the dreaded vacation scheme and training contract applications—and that’s all before you even graduate! The barriers that appear after graduation can also be daunting for an aspiring legal professional, as the legal industry has more applicants than it does positions. However, somebody aspiring to make it in the legal profession will often find that further exams and networking events are not the only hurdles to overcome. In some cases, unconscious bias can play a role in the recruitment of lawyers. That’s not to say that it’s just young legal professionals who will be impacted - unconscious bias can be present whether it’s in the recruitment process for a trainee, paralegal, or even for promotions and progression.

Unconscious bias and risks to the law firm

Unconscious bias is the automatic judgements or assessments we make about a group of people, often against factors such as age, race, gender, or even disability. Examples of unconscious bias include affinity bias (a tendency to warm up to people who are similar to ourselves), and the halo effect (focusing on somebody’s positives in one area and letting these influence the perception of them in other areas). These automatic judgements can therefore have a direct impact on how we perceive people, and when it comes to recruiters, unconscious bias can mean the difference between one candidate securing a position over another. 

Unconscious bias has become a hot topic because it’s quickly becoming apparent that law firms are falling behind when it comes to diversity in their workforce, and it has become a commercial imperative for law firms to address this and invest in strategies to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias. Where unconscious bias plays a role in recruitment decisions, the law firm risks becoming perpetually stuck in its cycle of its lack of diversity and losing out on new, top talent. Unconscious bias in the law firm can therefore mean women, ethnic minorities and disabled people missing out on promotions into senior roles, or why they may experience pay gaps. This can also have a knock-on effect on current employees, and impact retention and reputation. Some research has also suggested links between increased diversity and better financial performance. Thus, in order to break free of this loop, and adopt inclusivity in the workforce, law firms should prioritise reducing the negative impact of unconscious bias in the recruitment and selection stages. 

So what solutions can law firms adopt in order to combat unconscious bias? A ‘blind CV’ policy can be used, alongside mandating diversity within the recruiters and designing a recruitment process that minimises the impact of unconscious bias, such as allowing for an effective amount of time for a considered decision. Yet, the modification of recruitment processes may not be enough to rid the legal industry of bias in the workplace, as the bias is within the individual. A focus ought to be placed on those responsible for recruitment, and encouraging individuals to recognise and acknowledge where unconscious biases may play a role in their decisions. This is where unconscious bias training may be able to help.

Does it work?

In 2018, Irwin Mitchell joined 11% of firms making unconscious bias training available in order to promote inclusivity. Unconscious bias training allows for employees to identify their own unconscious bias and how to correct these biases and avoid acting on them if they can be discriminatory, as well as raising awareness of the existence of unconscious bias in the workplace. So while unconscious bias training is not the key to all diversity issues in the workplace, it certainly is a good starting point. 

Some criticisms of unconscious bias training include that it may actually reinforce bias, as such training could enhance caution and inhibition and reduce self-efficacy. How can you stop your bias training from doing more harm than good? Some suggestions could be to make the training voluntary, having follow up training and asking for feedback in order to improve training. 

The EHRC has suggested that when trying to strengthen your firm’s unconscious bias training programmes, it’s important to understand the problem you are trying to fix, be clear on your aims of the training and evaluate whether progress is being made, as well as to recognise that unconscious bias training is only one part of the solution. It’s important to know that if your aim is to change individual behaviours, change an organisation’s culture and practices for good and making permanent improvements to the workplace, then unconscious bias training needs to be just one of the many tools you’re using. More needs to be done, alongside this training, to move beyond these biases within your organisation.

Therefore, it appears that there is an urgent need for a change in thinking within firm culture, and the culture of the wider legal industry in order to fuel real and meaningful change. A culture change, however, requires commitment to a multidisciplinary approach—will your law firm lead the way in challenging unconscious bias?

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