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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    May 14, 2021

    President's Message: Biases: Yours May Surprise You

    The first step to countering negative biases is understanding that you and everyone else has them.

    Kathleen A. Brost

    Fun fact – I am licensed to practice law in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. No, I don’t have a border practice. But while I was in private practice, I had corporate clients who were domiciled in Minnesota, so I became licensed there.

    Kathy BrostKathy A. Brost, U.W. 1992, is president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. She works at Legacy Private Trust Co., Neenah.

    For the most part, any continuing legal education courses that I take for one state can be used for both states – with one notable exception. Minnesota requires two “elimination-of-bias” credits in addition to the ethics and general CLE requirements. However, in Wisconsin, elimination-of-bias and diversity-and-inclusion programs don’t qualify for CLE credit; most programs that cover these topics and qualify for CLE credit come under the ethics category.

    Because elimination-of-bias CLE wasn’t available in Wisconsin to satisfy Minnesota requirements, I would listen to an audio courseto fulfill my credits. The last time I did so, at about 8 p.m. on a Sunday, I put on headphones and sat down to listen to my required two-hour elimination-of-bias course. I had mastered the ability to sleep sitting up while in law school, so I fully anticipated that I would doze off in minutes. Instead, I found myself wide awake and utterly fascinated through the entire program. I was hooked.

    I was interested to learn that everyone has implicit biases. Implicit biases are those gut perceptions that you have about other people just from looking at them – not only before you get to know them but even before they say anything. Those perceptions are formed within seconds of seeing someone and, right or wrong, affect how you react to that person. Everyone has biases – so clients and opposing counsel may have implicit biases about you, too. You are being judged by everyone you encounter before you ever open your mouth.

    A classic example is when Hurricane Katrina flooded most of New Orleans. Many pictures appeared on social media of people wading through waist-deep floodwaters carrying sacks. The captions for the photos of white people often stated that they were fleeing the floodwaters carrying their personal possessions. The captions for the photos of Black people often stated that they had stolen whatever they were carrying. Same occurrences, but different colors of skin. There was no basis for these assumptions; no one interviewed the people who were photographed while wading through the floodwaters. But biases clearly existed.

    The primary goal of courses about implicit bias is not necessarily to eliminate these biases but to recognize and understand them. When you recognize your own implicit bias, then you are more likely to realize that the main problem with biases is your reaction to them. Taking the course on elimination of bias opened my eyes; it helped me be more accepting when dealing with prospective clients and other people.

    Some of you might think, as I did about myself, that you are open minded and not biased and, therefore, that elimination-of-bias training wouldn’t be helpful. Give it a try anyway. Start by taking an online test to identify your own biases. See, for example, Project Implicit. Each test is free and takes only about 10 minutes. Check out your biases – you might be surprised.

    » Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 4 (May 2021).




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