Study shows racial bias in evaluating legal writing

April 25, 2014
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When handing out the same memo to various law partners to critique under the guise of a study on the writing competencies of young attorneys, researchers discovered law partners found more errors in the memos they believed were written by an African-American attorney.

Nextions wanted to explore the idea of confirmation bias in racial perceptions of writing skills. It received 53 responses from partners who either looked at the same memo written by "Thomas Meyer," an African-American third-year associate from NYU Law School; or the memo written by "Thomas Meyer," a Caucasian third-year associate from NYU Law School.

In a previous study, researchers found evidence that supervising lawyers perceived African-American lawyers to be subpar in their writing skills as compared to their Caucasian counterparts. The study results released this month by Nextions confirmed that.

African-American Thomas Meyer’s memo averaged a 3.2/5 rating; Caucasian Thomas Meyer’s memo averaged a 4.1/5 rating. Comments were also generally more positive for Caucasian Thomas Meyer.

The memo contained 22 different errors: seven minor spelling/grammar errors; six substantive technical writing errors; five errors in fact and four errors in the analysis of the facts. The memo was sent to 39 Caucasian partners and 21 racial/ethnic minorities; 23 were women and 37 were men.

“We undertook this study with the hypothesis that unconscious confirmation bias in a supervising lawyer’s assessment of legal writing would result in a more negative rating if that writing was submitted by an African American lawyer in comparison to the same submission by a Caucasian lawyer. In order to create a study where we could control for enough variables to truly see the impact of confirmation bias, we did not study the potential variances that can be caused due to the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender, generational differences and other such salient identities. Thus, our conclusion is limited to the impact of confirmation bias in the evaluation of African American men in comparison to Caucasian men. We do not know (although we plan to study the issue in the very near future!) how this impact will splinter or strengthen when gender and/or other identities are introduced,” the researchers wrote in their summary.

“The data findings affirmed our hypothesis, but they also illustrated that the confirmation bias on the part of the evaluators occurred in the data collection phase of their evaluation processes – the identification of the errors – and not the final analysis phase. When expecting to find fewer errors, we find fewer errors. When expecting to find more errors, we find more errors. That is unconscious confirmation bias. Our evaluators unconsciously found more of the errors in the ‘African American’ Thomas Meyer’s memo, but the final rating process was a conscious and unbiased analysis based on the number of errors found. When partners say that they are evaluating assignments without bias, they are probably right in believing that there is no bias in the assessment of the errors found; however, if there is bias in the finding of the errors, even a fair final analysis cannot, and will not, result in a fair result.”

Take a look at the study and let me know what you think.
 

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  • Great to see Dr Arin moving on
    The author of this report was previously all about getting separate but equal restrooms for womyn attorneys (but not female secretaries), so it is really good to see her moving on from that: Reeves acknowledged that there may be a desire for inclusion; however, there is still inadequate support for it. An example she provided was a woman lawyer who did not have a designated restroom, as there were only two: one for women secretaries and the other for male lawyers." http://www.lewisu.edu/news/Newsarticle.htm?PArticleID=5722#.U1vG1Vda80M
    • Thinking about it
      Who circuluates a memo with the race of the author on it? What to expect next month, sexual preferences listed?
    • Does the study confirm unconscious bias on the part of the author?
      It seems to me that the study is a pretty thin one where it is possible that it reveals more about the unconscious confirmation bias of the author than of the subjects. Perhaps she has the belief that law partners are biased against minorities and women and used the information to confirm her belief. Looking at the errors detected by the reviewers, the only place where there was a significant difference in errors detected was in the spelling errors (2.9 for the "Caucasian" vs. 5.8 for the "African-American") whereas the error differences in technical writing (4.1 vs. 4.9) and facts (3.2 vs. 3.9). That could easily be interpreted to reach the conclusion that spelling counts and the reviewers have a more negative view about the work of poor spellers. Of course, the point can be made that the partners found more spelling errors in the work of the "African-American" associate based on their biases; however, by not doing a more thorough job, the author detracts from her point.
      • Direct hit
        I was thinking just the same, Larry. Who crunches her stats? What was the confidence interval? Will this "study" be peer reviewed? Is she not a "consultant" seeking to peddle her "services" in light of this thin social research? Is this science or mere rhetoric and manipulation parading as social science? I have to say that the probability is that it would never pass muster in even an undergrad class on social science. Rather sad to see such shody work promoted here, but I guess since it arrived at the "right" (make that "left") conclusions it is good to go, breaking news, justification for indicting the entire social order. Coming next month, how inherent biases cause us to discriminate against left handed typists.

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