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IMPROVING DIVERSITY is a continuing, but elusive, goal of the legal profession. Despite two decades of extensive efforts, gender and other diversity at the partner and general counsel level is essentially unchanged, according to Above the Law. Maybe the tried top-down approach to diversification simply does not work. Perhaps the legal profession needs a grassroots approach. Research, in that regard, points to a promising new way of promoting diversity using individual mindfulness.
Cognitive biases may be partly to blame for prejudices in the profession. A phenomenon called Correspondence Bias - a person's tendency to ignore circumstances - impacts how people view those of different social groups. The bias can negatively influence hiring decisions, including, for instance, those occurring within the legal profession. But research suggests that mindfulness - with practice - can help correct those biases. (See Greater Good Magazine.)
Mindfulness can expand a person's ability to understand another person's actions context. People also tend to "pay more attention to and react more strongly to negative events than positive events in our lives - a phenomenon called the negativity bias." Mindfulness can help with that too: "mindfulness can help reduce our negativity bias and consequently help us to be less wary of negative social encounters." (See Greater Good Magazine.)
In one study, researchers studied how mindfulness affected participant brain activity. Participants reported on their general mindfulness levels, then briefly viewed photos that induced strong positive emotion (like photos of babies), strong negative emotion (like photos of people in pain), or neither while having their brains scanned.
More mindful participants were less reactive to negative photos and showed higher indications of positive feeling when seeing the positive photos. This was assessed via brain patterns associated with reactions to distress. According to the authors, this supports the contention that mindfulness decreases the negativity bias—something other studies support as well.
While the personal benefits of mindfulness are well-studied, perhaps too little attention has been paid to how the practice can improve our social lives. The legal profession can possibly eliminate some of the diversity challenges and biases it faces by incorporating mindfulness practices into the lives of its individual attorneys.