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Breaking Down The Competency Gap

“I cannot make a mistake,” said a minority lawyer at a large law firm whom recently shared with me her feelings that she cannot make a mistake out of fear that she will be perceived as incompetent. She referenced a 2014 study conducted by Nextions where partners, male and female of various racial/ethnic backgrounds, participated in a “writing analysis study.” Of the 53 partners who participated, 29 partners were told they were reviewing a legal memo written by a white associate named Thomas Meyer and 24 partners were told they were reviewing the same memo but written by a black associate named Thomas Meyer. In addition, the partners were also told that the fictional Thomas Meyer was a third year associate who graduated from NYU Law School.

To be clear, the memo submitted by the white and black Thomas Meyer was exactly the same even laden with identical grammatical and technical errors; and flaws in legal analysis. The partners gave the memo written by the white Thomas Meyer a 4.1 out of 5 and the same memo written by the black Thomas Meyer a 3.2 out of 5. The white Thomas Meyer was praised for his “potential,” “good analytical skills” and being a “generally good writer.” The black Thomas Meyer was described as “average at best,” “need[ing] lots of work,” and at least one reviewer questioned how he could have possibly graduated from NYU Law School.

Let’s take a step back: the memos are exactly the same and yet the feedback is drastically different. Why is that? Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the study is that the black Thomas Meyer’s work product was reviewed as average by a diverse group of partners which tells me that unconscious bias transcends gender and ethnicity.

Now, back to my lawyer friend. She used the study to illustrate that as a minority associate she believes she cannot make a mistake because any mistake could be exacerbated no matter how slight. She believes her work product is automatically perceived as flawed even when it may not be and believes she, like the black Thomas Meyer, has to overcome a 0.9 “competency gap” (0.9 is the difference in grading between the two memos). Internalizing this, she feels wary of making mistakes and believes the path ahead is daunting.

I then thought back to the start of my legal career and not wanting to make mistakes either (and I still don’t). The difference is that I have been mostly fortunate to work with partners who understand that me making a mistake is not “the norm” and that when I do, I learn from them and will never repeat the same mistake twice. I also have never felt that I needed to overcome some sort of “competency gap” in order to be viewed as a capable attorney. However, I am astutely aware that my friend’s feelings are shared by many minority associates and perhaps her feelings are more “the norm” than the exception.

When I started this blog, I mentioned that I can probably cite every statistic and report relating to women of color at large law firms and issues with retention, advancement and promotion to partnership. Constantly thinking about the statistics can be daunting as my friend is now experiencing. Personally, I think it is more useful to think about the ways in which you can own your career instead of dwelling on the many challenges that await you. Do not be your own roadblock.

If you are afraid of making mistakes, here are some helpful tips:

1.         Remember, you are allowed to make mistakes. You have to be honest with yourself that mistakes will happen. No one likes to make mistakes. They are a nuisance. But if you are in an environment where you feel like any mistake you make is viewed as a sign of incompetence, you may want to rethink your work situation. To err is to be human and you have to make mistakes in order to grow. Make sure to ask the more senior attorneys for feedback on your assignments and how you can continue to improve. 

2.         Some mistakes should never be made. For example, even the most junior of attorneys should have an understanding of the Rules of Court. Not knowing Court Rules or a judge’s Individual Rules of Practice is not a mistake that should ever be made.

3.         Never make a mistake because you did not ask a question. Too many times, junior attorneys are afraid of being perceived as incompetent so they do not ask questions. Trust me, it is always better to ask the nagging question than not. Being mindful however, some questions may be answered without assistance so do your due diligence first.

4.         Own your mistakes. This is very important. Do not blame your assistant or anyone else for you making a mistake. Own your mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Your colleagues will have greater respect for you when you do this and your integrity will remain intact.

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