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Managing Your Dismissive and Bully Peers: Negative Experiences of Male Attorneys

By Paul Fisher1 and Juli Adelman

In this installment of our series on managing Dismissive and Bully attorneys, we explore some male attorneys’ experiences and their strategies with female attorneys. Try detaching while you read, as if you were studying the social patterns of Martians. This may help you better identify tools to adopt and pitfalls to avoid, whether the reader is male or female. This article draws from interviews with more than 45 attorneys.

Negative Experiences of Male Attorneys

Many male attorneys can’t stand the idea of women arguing back or worse, besting them. Several male interviewees expressed their belief that women attorneys, and particularly female litigators, are in a difficult situation. Specifically, they stated that female attorneys are in the constant dilemma of seeming too feminine to be effective, or seeming too aggressive to be likeable. As one man stated:
“Women lawyers are screamers and yellers more than men. Men don’t yell like women. To be a litigator for a woman is difficult. She has to balance being assertive without coming across as a complete bitch or c—.”

Some male attorneys reported witnessing other male attorneys – particularly older male attorneys – treat female attorneys with disrespect and dismissively. One male attorney interviewed stated that when he began practicing he noticed that older male attorneys did not take women lawyers seriously, are condescending and bullied them. Some male attorneys interviewed expressed discomfort with arguing with women attorneys.

This sense of discomfort among some male attorneys stems from the psychological phenomenon referred to as gender congruency. Gender is one of the earliest ways we learn to group individuals. People – whether due to culture or genetics –begin as children to perceive that “Boys do this and girls do that.” As a result, 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 incongruent – inconsistent with expectations of “typical” female behaviors.

That effects how men and women present themselves as lawyers. “Are we supposed to show we are more aggressive to show we are litigators?”One male attorney has seen male attorneys take only male attorneys and not female attorneys to exclusive clubs. He has heard women attorneys his age upset when younger women drop out of practice to have children. Some male attorneys comment that “Female attorneys feel they have to be more of a man than a man to prove themselves.” “It does effect what cases they get and if they become partner. They can’t do everything all at once or do it all well.” Some women attorneys are aware of their male counterparts’ impressions and this impacts how some women present themselves as lawyers. As one male attorney observed, “This makes women attorneys either gun-shy or behave like a bitch to the point of becoming a preemptive striker out of fear of being pushed around. Like a dog with its tail between its legs and barking and snapping.”

Some male and female attorneys use gender to their advantage. “Sometimes women bait men or use their sex to gain advantage. And sometimes positive things can happen, they can like each other. A male attorney, who can be very aggressive, Dismissive and Bully when in that role has distracted female opposing counsel with his charms and gotten them off their game. He says he takes it easier on pretty women than those who are not attractive, and easier on women than on men. This can be very disarming to the attorney who is taken in by the charm. The client may be at a disadvantage when this happens.”If a male attorney observes that “Female attorneys feel they have to be more of a man than a man to prove themselves” the male attorney is experiencing gender incongruence with this female attorney and it makes him feel uncomfortable. In this light the male’s feelings more understandable – regardless of whether they are correct in substance.

Some male attorneys are uncomfortable around female attorneys. One attorney stated: “Most female attorneys have never been in a locker room and have no sense of fair play. If they can take advantage they will. That’s the way they are hard wired.” What he is saying is that because he is a man he knows how to relate to a man.
Male attorneys may have the stereotype of being aggressive and dominant however these are commonly acceptable for male attorneys. These fundamental stereotypes set the foundation for a general assumption that women are less competent than men, but men are less warm. This leads to assumptions of how women should act. Much of this thought process occurs outside conscious awareness. Another attorney interviewed opined, “Women who are as tough as men are called bitch or worse. Sometimes they feel they have to prove themselves and be tough and stand up to people.” This attorney likes women attorneys who are tough, strong and smart and can represent their clients well. He feels no need to insult them. “But a lot of men can’t handle this behavior in women attorneys and react badly.”

Another male attorney believes younger female attorneys “have a chip on their shoulder. But this is changing.” Now half of law school graduates are women and “they should not feel they are a minority. Some inexperienced female attorneys are fearful the male attorneys will take advantage of them professionally and are even more intimidated by older men, which this attorney is. “Older female attorneys are more self assured.”

Individual differences such as life experiences, cultural differences, age, positive experiences with women and women lawyers can decrease gender stereotyping. Male lawyers have or may developed perspective over time. For example for one
male attorney, when female opposing counsel is nasty or difficult, he attributes the behavior to the person’s personality not the gender. “It’s her issue, not mine. Some female lawyers are too full of themselves, just like some male lawyers.”

A few male attorneys interviewed believe that older male attorneys can be very condescending to female attorneys. Another male attorney believes he generally works very well with women attorneys. His law partner is his wife and she has been in practice as long as him. As a result he is especially sensitive and empathic with women lawyers.

Other attorneys have developed the capacity to view lawyers whether male or female on an individual basis. For example, one male attorney does not have a gender axis of evaluation like he does for skilled/unskilled, moral/immoral, ethical/unethical, and believes these elements, whether positive or negative, are present in both male and female attorneys. “Female attorneys are as reasonable and as crazy as male attorneys.” However, based on his experience he believes male attorneys are usually more skilled overall than female attorneys. Though the best opposing trial counsel he has experienced was female. In his experience male walk closer to the immoral or unethical line than females.

A very seasoned male attorney believes some female attorneys are harder on him than they need to be, and that it is a common male perception that “female attorneys feel they have to be more of a man than a man to prove themselves. This may not be inappropriate.”

Conclusion

For safe sailing, keep gender out of the practice. Otherwise expect hurricane conditions.

Next Chapter

Additional male attorney strategies in dealing with female attorneys.

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, 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 paul@fishermediation.com or (310) 444-9200.

Juli Adelman is chief executive officer of Vantage Trial Consulting, a full-service litigation strategy, jury research and trial consulting firm based in Santa Monica. She can be reached at juli@vantagetrialconsulting.com or (310) 883-5048.

1Copyright by Paul Fisher