Women in the Law

‘Leniency Bias’ in Job Reviews Hampers Women Lawyers, Consultant Says

Too few women lawyers are attaining partnerships, and the reason can be traced to unconscious bias affecting everything from assignments to job evaluations, according to a law firm partner and consultant.

Writing in the National Law Journal, Lauren Stiller Rikleen says a lack of clear policies and objective standards can allow unconscious bias to creep into the evaluation process. Those writing the evaluations exhibit “leniency bias” when they treat associates who are like themselves more flexibly and others more harshly.

Some examples: A win may be attributed to the competence of a male lawyer, but to luck or an easy assignment for a female lawyer. Or a male associate may be described as a person who “can handle significant legal matters without supervision” while a female associate is described as a person who can do the job “with minimal supervision.”

Rickleen recommends that law firms fight bias by establishing core competencies needed for career growth and developing a “gender-equal performance evaluation system” requiring detailed explanations to support numerical ratings.

Rikleen is a senior partner at the Massachusetts law firm Bowditch & Dewey and is executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, which helps law firms attract and retain women.

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