When I started law school in 2007, I knew that the legal field was still one dominated by men. According to the American Bar Association, at that time women only accounted for 30.1% of the over 1,000,000 lawyers in the country. Only 17.9% of partners at private law firms were women, and only 16.6% were general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. The numbers were just as low for female judges at the federal level. Now, 7 years later, women still only account for 33.3% of all lawyers, 19.9% of partners, and 21.6% of general counsel at a Fortune 500 company. What I’ve learned in my time as a practicing attorney is that many of the men in the field, especially the older men, and even some of the women, believe the field is a man’s world and do not treat the women as equals. Here are just a few of my experiences.
There’s one county that I absolutely hated going to when I first started litigating because nobody believed that I was an attorney. They have a very old school way of thinking, and even the tipstaff who check people in and run the courtroom are of an older generation. So, when I first started going, I would attempt to check in and would have to stand there and convince people I was an attorney despite the fact that I was in a suit, carrying files, and pulling a rolling suitcase behind me. When I would give the staff my name, the most common response was “oh, are you a court reporter?” No, I’m an attorney, I’d reply, and once they got over their shock they’d change their attitude and be much more professional with me. Despite the same staff working the court every time I went down there, it still took at least a dozen trips to that court before they stopped asking me that question and actually recognized me as an attorney. Another time, in that same county, I went into the courtroom, suit on and files in hand, and tried to walk to the front and speak with my incarcerated client. The sheriff stopped me and said I wasn’t allowed up there, although I saw a gaggle of male attorneys talking to their clients. I asked him if he was denying my client his right to speak with his attorney, and the male sheriff shook his head and said “oh sorry, I thought you were his girlfriend” and let me through. Apparently I’d been demoted from court reporter to defendant’s girlfriend.
In another county, I’ve built a very professional and friendly working relationship with the district attorneys there. So, during a day of status hearings for pending cases, the DA called my case near the top of the list and ahead of many of the older male attorneys. When I returned to my seat I overheard two male attorneys complaining about how quickly I’d been called when I was clearly younger than them. As I gathered my things I jokingly said it must be that I’m there too much. One of them said “actually, no, I think it’s just because you’re blonde.” If I’d been a young man called before this guy, do you think he’d say something like that?
My first time in another county (which, by the way, is very small and backwoods), I wasn’t sure how they ran their hearings so I stopped and asked one of the men who had just been having a friendly conversation with another gentleman. He refused to help me and said “what do I look like, a Public Defender?” and walked away. I assumed he didn’t think I was an attorney and thought I was a pro se defendant trying to get free legal advice.
These are just some of my favorite interactions with male attorneys. But these types of experiences don’t stop with attorneys. I’m definitely treated differently by clients than the male attorneys in my office. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve covered hearings for one of the male attorneys in my office and been treated incredibly rudely and disrespectfully by the client, only to be told by the attorney I was covering for that they’d never had that problem with that client. I’ll do consults with potential clients who will then tell me they’d like to speak to one of the male attorneys before hiring our firm, or that they want one of the other attorneys to represent them just because I’m a woman. On the other hand, I have one client who hired me just because I’m a female because he said I’m a very good looking young woman. In his mind, we’ll get at least one male on the jury who will side with me just because of my looks, which means he’ll get a not guilty verdict despite the horrible facts of his case.
Thankfully, the PA Bar Association has a very active Commission on Women in the Profession on which I serve. Its purpose is to advance and empower women in the legal profession. Through that committee I was assigned a female attorney mentor, Lisa Benzie, who is just as dedicated to empowering women, especially women lawyers, as I am. She’s encouraged me to attend things like the PBA Women in the Profession retreat, the Dauphin County Bar Association DIVA award presentation, and become more active in the committee. This has certainly given me a new outlook on being a female working in a man’s world. I no longer take it personally and almost laugh when things like this happen because it is so ridiculous.
Once men see me in action and watch what I’m able to do as an attorney, I always get more respect and a completely different attitude than before. Obviously, I’m still treated differently and probably will be for quite some time. I have a strong support system that I can vent to, but more importantly, I have teammates who are helping change the legal profession from a man’s world to one of equals.