Friday, January 28, 2022

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Stereotypes Take Center Stage

A trio of Oregon legal professionals knows firsthand how bias has an impact on attorneys. Michael Wise, a Portland personal injury lawyer with a penchant for pinstriped suits, frequently encounters bias from jurors. In fact, he was involved in just such a situation when interviewed for this article.

One of the jurors thought I was dressed too nicely, so I must be an ambulance chaser. I've had to deal with that and I do deal with that, Wise says.

He asks jurors point blank what they think about lawyers and specifically personal injury lawyers - along with questioning them about their impressions of how he is dressed. During a recent trial, Wise asked the jury if his pinstriped suit and monogrammed shirt led them to believe he is dishonest.

One woman raised her hand and said, Yeah, maybe, Wise says. A lot of attorneys will completely change how they dress or what they drive so they don't face that bias or discrimination, but I'm just not good at being something I'm not. I like dressing nice for work each day.

Liani Reeves has battled a triple threat of biases over the years, starting with her decision to become a trial lawyer. Many questioned whether a young, Asian woman could be aggressive enough to be an effective litigator.

I think it was most demonstrated when I looked at my male counterparts coming out of law school who also weren't as aggressive and maybe had more of a thoughtful personality. That quality is often interpreted as being passive, she says.

Reeves went to work for the Attorney General in the Oregon Department of Justice's trial division and gained plenty of experience in both bench and jury trials, complete with advetsarial litigation. She tried cases throughout the state and was a bit skeptical when she was asked to try a case in Malheur County.

I was sort of scared that my race, ethnicity or gender might be an issue, but I was really kind of pleasantly surprised. The jurors took the case very seriously, says Reeves, now general counsel for Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Reeves notes that while there still is much room for improvement, the increase in diversity among attorneys and judges is helping to address the problem of bias in the courtroom.

I think as the numbers change, we're forced to change. As I've become more established in my career, I wonder if that bias I felt 10 years ago was because 1 was new. I feel much more confident now, so that really isn't an issue anymore, she says.

Angel Lopez, Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, is far removed from his early days as a public defender, but he vividly recalls how nervous he was about his first trial and the prejudice he might encounter in the courtroom. He quickly learned his fears were unfounded.

I saw that the jurors don't care about what race you are. They care about what you have to say about the issue and about the case, Lopez says. It was the first time 1 ever felt like an American because I felt equal to anybody involved in that trial.

However, a trial in the Linn-Benton county area just over a decade ago introduced Lopez to the other end of the bias spectrum. Lopez was representing a Latino man charged with delivering drugs and had just picked the jury when the judge called him into his chambers during the lunch break.

One of the jurors had made a derogatory remark about me and my client. The judge called the juror in, gave her an incredible dressing down and set her home packing, Lopez says. That came as a complete shock and surprise to me because I had never experienced anything like that before, at least not to my face. It just came out of the blue.

Lopez says he believes the issue of bias in the courtroom has improved since the bar and the Oregon Supreme Court committed in 1974 to study racism and its impact on the state's judicial system. Since then, the bar has implemented measures to address access to justice, affirmative action and other programs that foster diversity and inclusion within the system.

Still, many wonder if more needs to be done to address jury bias against attorneys and its potential impact on plaintiffs and defendants.

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