Shawn C Marsh, Ph.D.

Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D.

Bias? Why should the legal profession be concerned about bias—explicit or implicit?

As surprising as it might be to hear attorneys utter those words, they represent a position firmly held by some.

Meantime, on May 8, lawyers who thought otherwise packed two rooms—in Phoenix and Tucson—to hear an expert discuss implicit bias in the legal profession.

Hosted by the State Bar of Arizona, the presentation by Dr. Shawn Marsh answered my opening question handily: Because, perhaps even more than other professions, the legal profession and the legal system are peppered with decision points, each of which may go horribly awry because human beings are susceptible to bias.

First, let me give you the good doctor’s bio:

“Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., is the Chief Program Officer of Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Dr. Marsh is a social psychologist with research and teaching interests in the areas of psychology and the law, adolescent development, trauma, and juvenile justice. His background includes working with youth in detention and correction settings as an educator and mental health clinician, and he is a licensed school counselor, professional counselor, and clinical professional counselor. Dr. Marsh is affiliated with several academic departments at the University of Nevada, and his publications include numerous articles in scholarly journals such as Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice and Victims & Offenders, as well as chapters in textbooks such as Correctional Psychiatry and Juvenile Crime and Justice.”

His May 8 presentation to a standing-room-only room at the University Club explored the many ways our important decisions are steered by our biases. Spoiler alert: We cannot eliminate them; they are rooted in everyone’s cognitive processes. But we can be more mindful of them, and in so doing, work to minimize their effects.

His approach was humorous and non-confrontational. He shared the many ways we may be seeing the world through skewed eyes. Here is one humorous example that he offered:

Snoop Martha Stewart sterotype

So, Snoop and Martha Stewart give us pause. Excellent. Because pausing before we act is one of the strategy Marsh recommends as you make your way as a human. (Marsh listed about 14 strategies.)

Take a few minutes. Take the Implicit Association Test (which retired Chief Justice McGregor also recommends.) Educate yourself. Expose yourself to other cultures and people.

That last point led to one of the more intriguing anecdotes he shared. He explained that research has shown that relatively brief exposure to praiseworthy individuals in groups that are not yours (“out-group exemplars”) may lead us all to see the entire “other” group in a much more positive light. In fact, even a 30-second positive focus (perhaps in a news or sports story) may yield attitude and behavior changes that last 24 hours.

How can we maximize that effect? Marsh said at least a few courts have uploaded slideshows to serve as the screen-savers on the computers of judges and court staff. In a nation that exhibits disparate treatment (even in sentencing) based on race, viewing a continual slideshow of admirable people of color may have a long-term effect.

(That and other strategies are listed in this National Center for State Courts report.)

Finally, Marsh points out that though attitudes matter, so do behaviors. And those behaviors are often exhibited through our selection of words. So I leave you, as he did, with a great short video on the power that words may have on the actions of us and those around us.