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Managing Your Dismissive and Bully Peers – Gender: Negative Experiences of Female Attorneys and Their Responses

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By Paul Fisher1 and Juli Adelman

In this and the following installment of our series on managing Dismissive and Bully attorneys, we share with the reader experiences unique to female attorneys and their interactions with male attorneys during the course of their careers. We also share how some women have responded to these experiences, with positive or negative results. Subsequent installments will explore the experiences of male attorneys, how they have responded to actions of some female attorneys and the results of those responses. Try detaching while you read, as a parent might at their child’s first middle school dance. This may help you better identify tools to adopt and pitfalls to avoid, whether the reader is male or female. This article is drawn from interviews with more than 45 attorneys.

Negative Experiences of Female Attorneys

During the interviews, many female attorneys recounted negative gender-related experiences, such as being mistaken for a legal assistant or support staff. One young associate was even told by her boss never to carry a pen, pencil, legal pad or coffee to avoid being confused with a secretary or court reporter. Another attorney shared that during the course of her career, older male attorneys have remarked on her good looks or what she was wearing. Another’s first job was with a male partner who invited only the male associates out for drinks. A fourth attorney finds that male lawyers ask for her supervisor, though she is in charge of the case. One last attorney experienced an older male opposing counsel continuously trying to engage her in personal conversation during trial recesses, and learned from the female court reporter that he had repeatedly looked down the court reporter’s blouse.

Some female attorneys found these kinds of experiences troublesome, describing the male attorneys as “incredibly narrow-minded” and the comments as “inappropriate and demoralizing because the subject is not about the law or the case.” While their frustration is understandable, it is important to remember that it is human nature to automatically place people into social categories. Gender is one of the first and most basic forms of social category we learn — we apply gender labels automatically and without deliberation. Individuals will differ as far as what they think about particular men or women, but the basic category of gender exists nonetheless. Comments betraying this dynamic do not necessarily indicate a Bully or Dismissive attorney. How a woman lawyer reacts to being categorized in this way, accurately or not, can affect her career. Women lawyers need to consider how they are being perceived.

Several female attorneys interviewed stated that they have experienced fewer gender-related comments from male attorneys under 50 or so years of age.
One described her impression that younger male attorneys are more accustomed to dealing with females in a professional capacity and hold fewer stereotypes. In recent years, many law school graduating classes are more gender-balanced (and sometimes majority female), which we would expect to reduce gender differentiation among classmates and colleagues.

The How and Why of Alternative Responses

When encountering negative gender-related situations, it is important to understand the psychological processes at play and to consider in advance how best to respond. Interviewees described responding to gender-related comments in a variety of ways and with varying results. Knowing how to respond takes judgment. Women lawyers have to make good decisions about when to respond assertively and when to ignore, let a compliment be a compliment, or set boundaries. The following are types of responses women lawyers interviewed have used and the impact of those responses:

One type of response interviewees described was to punish male lawyers for treating them as less than equal because of gender. For example, one lawyer stated that after a male attorney repeatedly and disrespectfully “pushed her buttons,” she made it her mission to ensure that he would not get payment of his attorney fees. Consider, however, spending time and energy fighting someone’s automatic response to gender might be time lost on something more worthy.

Rather than become angry, some attorneys interviewed choose to ignore such gender-based comments. One seasoned attorney states that for her now, this is “not an issue”; she has trained herself to not think about it. If comments are made, she either disregards them or responds with humor. She finds that doing so allows her to focus on the work at hand.

One attorney chooses to perceive gender-based comments as neither inappropriate nor insulting but rather simply socially awkward. By not reacting, the comment diffuses instead of becoming an issue.

Still other women interviewed choose to accept that “a compliment is a compliment” and that gender differences simply exist. One experienced female attorney stated that when she receives compliments about her clothes or hair she “takes it at face value. I have no reason not to.” Another female attorney says that she chooses to perceive gender-based comments neither as inappropriate nor insulting but simply socially awkward. For her, by not reacting the comment diffuses and does not become an issue.

Female attorneys interviewed who responded to gender-based comments with a sense of levity were often more effective at getting past them. Their approach tended to result in opposing male counsel seeing them as individuals, without interceding acrimony. Psychological research has found that while someone may be categorized as a “beautiful woman,” after time spent with her and exposure to her competent professionalism, the focus on gender fades.

Many women expressed their belief that while certain gender comments can either be ignored or made light of, other comments must not be allowed to slide. It is possible that a woman lawyer is dealing with a Bully attorney who is trying to intimidate her. A Dismissive attorney may attempt to criticize a mother for working or make presumptuous or pejorative references to work-life balance. Deciding when something crosses the line is a personal call that should take into account how it will affect your case and client in the short term, as well as you, over the course of your career. It is possible that you will cross paths with this commenter on another case or while interviewing for a new job.

Consider how you will respond as opposed to react. The majority of female lawyers interviewed recommend always being professional in response to gender-based comments. One very experienced attorney elaborated: “If you are doing good work, there is no basis for being mistreated or bullied. You have to call them on it. ‘Would you make a racial slur? Probably not. Your remark was inappropriate and I don’t appreciate it.’ … If you call them on it they will back off.” Other women lawyers respond with an aggressive, often rules-based reply. Their intent is to send a strong message that they must be taken seriously and will not be taken advantage of.

Judges are not immune to social categorization. One attorney interviewed stated that judges have on occasion told female attorneys at the start of a hearing, “We’ll wait until the attorney arrives.” Another attorney interviewed described the start of a court hearing where her opposing attorney was also female, and the judge said, “I’m inclined to ask the partners to come down here so they can settle this matter.” When she told the judge she was the partner on the case, the judge appeared embarrassed and asked both counsel to come into chambers with him. In his apparent effort to overcompensate, he showed them around his chambers, including photos of him in a bathing suit. Both female counsel felt very uncomfortable and, in a peculiar twist of fate, transformed their own bad working relationship through this unpleasant bonding experience.

Conclusion

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

Next Chapter

When gender can be an advantage for female attorneys and additional female attorney strategies. The subsequent installment addresses male attorney experiences and strategies.

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