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As a board member of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group and the first chairperson of Dechert’s diversity committee, I think of myself as someone who judges people for who they are as individuals, without prejudice or stereotypes. And I think most lawyers — especially those who are reading this column — would say the same of themselves. But it is also true that I am the product of my age, hometown, family background, race, religion and political perspective, to name just of few of the factors that influence the way I see the world. That too is true of all of us.

This unique perspective that each of us brings to our dealings with the world is reflected in and reflects our mental leanings, inclinations and partialities, i.e. our biases. They collectively create the lens through which we see the world. And without using some general perspectives (biases) we would spend all our time reorganizing and rethinking everything we see, or do or say — a debilitating process.

Not surprisingly, many people feel more comfortable with those they think are “like me” on any one or more of many dimensions. Some “like me” biases are benign (based on shared interests, for example) and biases are not necessarily prejudices — until they harden into judgments, recognized or not, that people who don’t fit in the “like me” categories based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity or family background aren’t as good or valuable as those who do. At that point the bias has become a prejudice, a preconceived idea that is hard to change, an automatic judgment resulting in intolerance of differences. Obvious prejudices have been the cause, and overcoming them the focus, of efforts at encouraging diversity.

We also need to recognize and begin to deal with biases — conscious and unconscious predispositions that are still fairly flexible. The impact of biases may be obvious or subtle, overt or hidden, direct or indirect, imposed deliberately or inadvertently. The impact may be known or unknown even to the person exhibiting the bias. Biases may result in acts of omission or commission. And the impacts may be individual or institutional, random or consistent throughout an organization.

Unconscious biases begin to have real world effects in several ways.

First, of course, we want to work with those who make things more efficient, more pleasant, more predictable, and more comfortable. Without even realizing it, this may result in our gravitating to the people in the “like me” categories, be those categories benign or more invidious.

Second, we often want to give a hand up to others in whom we see ourselves in earlier days. And that is often defined by easily observed or known factors — age, gender, race, religion, personal style.

Third, if we don’t know someone, we often create in our minds a history for the person based on easy observations and generalizations (do you hear the word “stereotype” lurking?) and act on that created image.

In 2005, the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group held a conference on retention of diverse associates. One of the activities involved a diverse group of volunteers standing side-by-side and moving backward and forward in response to questions about their backgrounds. Some questions were expected (did your parents go to college? finish high school?); some were less so (how many books were in your house? is the person in charge of your firm the same gender, race or religion as you?)

After perhaps 20 questions, we volunteers were scattered around the room. Some were clearly well ahead of and some lagged well behind the majority of the group. Not everyone was where a casual observer without the background Q&A would have assumed he or she would be. Some assumptions were proved correct, some were partially so and some were surprisingly wrong. Clearly, although most of us knew each other, biases still influenced where we thought the participants would wind up.

The same need for information to make unbiased decisions is true of our actions as lawyers, mentors, supervisors. Our choices of whom to work with, whom to advise, whom to put on a project reflect who we are and what makes us feel comfortable. If someone reacts like us — seems to think like us, analyzes things the same way, conveys information the same way, takes the same approach to work, has a similar personal style, then of course that person must be smart, capable and the right person to introduce to a client or trust with an important piece of research, drafting or negotiation.

Unfortunately, often we make decisions on minimal contact — we reach conclusions based on brief observations by mentally, and often unconsciously, filling in the blanks without any real individualized information. Even if we focus on avoiding stereotypes, we may react to personal styles that reflect a person’s background, race, gender or ethnicity. In a meeting, was someone being aggressive? Or was she just outgoing? Was he passive, so you thought maybe he just didn’t get it? Or was he the product of a culture where his reserved, respectful demeanor was the only polite response? Did you decide that you could not necessarily “read” what was going on with the person, and that made you uncomfortable? And, fundamentally, is a different style or approach necessarily bad or just different?

As is probably obvious, none of us can automatically know another person, even one who is similar to us on as many dimensions as we could list, let alone someone who is different on any one or more dimensions. But that does not mean we should assume that such a person isn’t or won’t become at least as good a lawyer, as smart, creative, connected to clients, good at managing people, as any of us has ever been. And we each owe that person a chance to make that happen.

If any of us find ourselves reluctant to work with someone or realize — or have it pointed out — that we have not worked with someone in our practice area, we owe it to them and to ourselves to think about why, to face the biases and to give the person a chance. If that means explaining to the other person what we need to make the professional relationship work, then we should tell the person, even if that is hard to do. It also means trying to get to know or understand the person beyond what seems obvious.

Those are risky actions because then we too are exposed — we are essentially confessing our theretofore unconscious biases, to ourselves if to no one else, and moving beyond them. But unless we confront our conscious and unconscious biases and get past them, diversity efforts eventually will hit a dead end.

Lois Kimbol is of counsel in the environmental law group of Dechert. She was the first chairperson of Dechert’s diversity committee, of which she is still a member. Kimbol also represents the firm on the board of the Philadelphia Diversity Law Groups where she is the co-chairwoman of the summer 1L program committee.

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