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Speak Softly, Carry a Big Brief? Masculine Voices Fall Short at SCOTUS: Study

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By William Peacock, Esq. on January 02, 2015 11:22 AM

"Mister Chief Justice, may it please the Court?"

A recent study rated male lawyers as they argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and nothing correlated with success quite like the masculinity of the lawyers' voice while uttering that phrase. But the real shocker? The more masculine the voice, the less likely the advocate was to win the case, according to the study.

Is it a statistical fluke? And were there any other interesting findings?

Private or Public Lawyers

Here's an interesting note from the study that isn't getting much coverage: The finding was only good for publicly employed lawyers, not private firm attorneys. "The negative correlation disappears for lawyers in private firms, consistent with market competition eroding taste-based discrimination," a draft abstract of the study notes. (H/T to ABA Journal.)

The abstract goes on to hypothesize about why there is a discrepancy between private and public lawyers:

"In the spirit of (Becker, 1957), private firms, with profit-maximizing incentives, would be more likely to assign the lawyers who will win their case (whether because they have more resources to buy these lawyers, more resources with which to find out which lawyers win, more experience litigating and have learned over time which lawyers win, or simply because they care about the bottom line more). Indeed, we find that our results are primarily driven by public rather than private advocates. This heterogeneity alleviates some of the concerns of omitted variables. For example, if firms with bad cases assign tough, masculine sounding lawyers who bluster their way through an oral argument, we might expect both public and private firms to use this strategy, but they do not."

Methodology

No study is worth nothing without examining the methodology. Here, roughly 1,400 participants rated the voices of 60 lawyers using samples of oral arguments from the Oyez Project's recordings archives. Participants were gathered on Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online labor marketplace where workers are paid a negligible amount for a short task -- here, it was listening to voices and rating them by masculinity, as well as answering a few questions about their own demographics.

The real interesting note is the sample size: 60 participants. With the public/private split in results, I'd be especially curious about how many of those 60 fell into each category and whether, say, 30 attorneys is enough of a representative sample of all advocates.

That's not a dig at this study, however: It is a great idea and a truly fascinating finding. I'm curious to see if follow-up studies find the same public/private split and negative correlation with masculine voices over larger sample sizes, and whether there is a difference by individual justice or by Court composition. (Maybe you eliminate unanimous decisions as well, since those arguably obvious cases might fuzzy up your results a bit.)

What do you think? Should SCOTUS advocates speak softly and carry big briefs, or is this just a fun study with no real-world implications? Tweet us @FindLawLP.

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