Managing Your Dismissive and Bully Opposing Attorneys – Gender: Male Attorney Strategies
By Paul Fisher
Previous installments in this series focus on the gender impact on relationships between female and male attorneys and discuss the following: When interviewed, some female attorneys described male attorneys they have worked with as “incredibly narrow-minded” and their comments as “inappropriate and demoralizing”. Knowing how to respond takes judgment. Women lawyers must make good decisions about responding assertively, ignoring, letting a compliment be a compliment and setting boundaries. (See Part 6 of this series, “Gender: Negative Experiences of Female Attorneys and Their Responses” and Part 7, “Gender as an Advantage and Additional Female Attorney Strategies“.)
On the other hand, some male attorneys had negative professional experiences with female attorneys (which are likewise gender based). When women adopt what are typically considered to be male behaviors, such as assertiveness, competitiveness or independence, others (both men and women) evaluate them negatively. These behaviors are inconsistent with expectations of “typical” female behavior, such as being feminine. Male attorneys can routinely be aggressive and dominant. However, for male attorneys, these are commonly acceptable traits. These fundamental stereotypes set the foundation for a general assumption that women are less competent than men, but men are less warm – which leads to assumptions about how women should act. Some male attorneys cannot handle this behavior in women attorneys and over react. (See Part 8. “Negative Experiences of Male Attorneys“)
Male attorney strategies
Do not react: One very seasoned male attorney believes he reacts negatively to female counsel if they are “bitchy or aggressive and are a pain in the ass.” He does not like tough women. This reaction is consistent with the source of gender behavior impressions in childhood and expectations of males and females as adults, attorneys or otherwise, outlined in the introduction. A male attorney indicated that during a deposition the opposing female attorney said he was bullying her client. He acknowledged to himself that he probably had been acting that way and that she was right. He tried not to react to her accusation but he felt like a fool. After reflection, his conclusion was that female attorneys are no different than male attorneys. Now when he becomes aware of his emotional reaction to a female attorney he tells himself, “Don’t let your feelings drive you. Focus on the person and not the gender.” There are many lessons in this tale, one of which is some attorneys listen so speak up.
Always be alert to gender sensitivities and be professional: In a child custody battle, a female lawyer represented the husband and two male attorneys represented the wife. At a meeting between counsel intended to make progress toward resolving the issues, one of the male attorneys almost immediately blurted out, in a tone heard by the female attorney as bullying and clownish, “Do you know what this case is really about? It’s about your client’s penis. He wagged it at our client’s preteen daughter!” This pronouncement brought a stop to negotiations because the female attorney was not aware of this claim and the manner of how it was presented shocked her. At the time the female attorney was the only female in the room and felt this was a gender based comment intended to get her off focus. She felt blindsided by the male attorney. However, she later confirmed the event with her client. When dealing with delicate issues such as this, male attorneys need to be very alert to the possibility that a woman attorney might react to tone and content of what is said to them. It is necessary to be extremely discrete, aware of the female attorney’s sensitivities and cautious to not push opposing attorney’s gender buttons. Otherwise the opportunity to continue a productive conversation could evaporate.
Filter out the noise: When another male attorney is confronted by a Dismissive or Bully female attorney, he pretends they are being polite and he filters out the rudeness. He then responds in a congenial manner. If the opposing female attorney is entirely rude he does not respond.
Manage yourself before you can manage the Dismissive or Bully opposing female attorney: Start with mindfulness, which in this context means quickly understanding why you are reacting to the opposing attorney, female or male. When the opposing attorney says or does something that causes you to react physically, such as your heart starts to race, your blood begins to boil, your stomach churns and you begin to rage, immediately stop yourself. Think back to the first time in your life that you had this reaction to someone. Perhaps a parent or sibling who yelled at you. That understanding allows you to quickly come back to the present moment empowered to be very calm and professional. In a lower tone of voice than you normally use (which immediately lowers the temperature in the room), you might mention something like, “Let’s not personalize our relationship. Our jobs are to represent our clients professionally. Let’s resume in that manner. I assure you I will not become personal and I expect you will do the same.”
Using gender to advantage: Some male and female attorneys use gender to their advantage. “Sometimes women bait men or use their sexuality to gain advantage. And sometimes positive things can happen, they can like each other.” Alternately, a male attorney, who can be very aggressive, Dismissive and Bullying, has distracted female opposing counsel with his charms and gotten them off their game. This can be very disarming to the attorney who is taken in by the charm, and may put that attorney’s client at a disadvantage when this happens.
Setting limits: Rather than engaging in tit for tat behavior with opposing counsel, consider using the ultimate tool for setting limits for the opposing attorney, male or female, who is being a bully. One male attorney perceives that in a majority of cases where the opposing attorney is female, the female attorney tries to control the entire litigation process by attempting to dictate what will and will not occur in the case. When confronted by this he “goes by the book”, filing more discovery motions than usual to enforce the Code of Civil Procedure and Local Rules in order to contain the opposing attorney.
Additional male attorney strategies: One very seasoned male attorney believes he reacts to female counsel if they are “bitchy or aggressive. They are a pain in the ass.” He does not like tough women. In one deposition the opposing female attorney said he was bullying her client. He acknowledged to himself that he probably was and that she was right. He tried not to react but he felt like a fool. His belief is that female attorneys are no different than male. When he becomes aware of an emotional reaction to a female attorney he tells himself, “Don’t let your feelings drive you. Focus on the person and not the gender.” There are many lessons in this tale, one of which is some attorneys listen so speak up.
One male attorney perceives that in a majority of cases where the opposing attorney is female, they try to control the entire litigation process by attempting to dictate what will and will not occur in the case, ignoring the CCP and local Rules. He finds this annoying and unproductive. When confronted by this he “goes by the book”, filing more discovery motions then usual to enforce the CCP and local Rules.
- Always be super respectful to women. Do not develop rapport too quickly or they will think you are becoming too familiar.
- All communication must be totally non-sexual.
- Take pains never to make a gender based statement or one that could be construed as one; i.e. “You are a hysterical bitch”. If you wish to remain professional there is never adequate provocation.
Some women attorneys have very strong negative opinions about other female attorneys they view as Dismissive or Bully. Some male attorneys have similar opinions about other male attorneys. And both male and female attorneys have similar experiences in dealing with the opposite gender who they perceive to be Dismissive or Bully.
Perhaps it’s not that male or female attorneys are more Dismissive or Bully. Perhaps it’s that Dismissive and Bully attorneys come in two or more genders and impact their same and opposite gender colleagues. Perhaps neither female nor male Dismissive or Bully attorneys are necessarily worse than the other. It may be a matter of perception of attorneys through their respective lenses of inherent gender differences. Yet some attorneys, male and female, view the opposing Dismissive or Bully attorney as just that, an attorney. Not as female or male attorney. These attorneys see opposing counsel through a more or less gender neutral lens. That is not to say one style of lawyering is better than another. They are different.
This series of articles is the result of extensive interviews with more than forty attorneys in Southern California. These attorneys are primarily litigators / trial attorneys and several transactional attorneys. The group has some diversity, male, female and gay, with a range of practice experience from seven to 40-plus with the average of approximately 25.
Paul Fisher is a full-time mediator with Fisher Mediation in Los Angeles. He mediates complex business (including family business dissolution and restructuring), real estate, construction, trust, estate and conservatorship conflicts. Paul has a special talent for managing high-conflict personality parties and their attorneys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 444-9200.