Tips from the Other Side

I’m on Laura Flanders’ GritTV talking about the New York Bar Association’s tips for lady-lawyers:

I swear I am not actually that monotone in real life! Or maybe I am, and I need to hire a speaking coach. Either way.

Transcript below the fold.

Next week, the New York State Bar Association will hold its annual meeting. The Committee on Women in the Law decided to sponsor a day-long program for female lawyers, beginning with a panel titled “What’s Our Problem: Current Issues Facing Women,” wherein a group of female attorneys will discuss practicing law in a changing legal market. Immediately afterward, female lawyers are treated to “Their Point of View: Tips From the Other Side,” in which a “distinguished panel of gentlemen” opine on the strengths and weaknesses of women’s legal work.

Predictably, female lawyers were outraged.

I’m sure the panel was well-intentioned, and I don’t doubt that many of the gentleman panelists would have offered great advice on how to succeed. Apparently none of them knew the description of the panel or that it would be all-male before signing onto it, so no one is blaming them personally. No one is even suggesting that men can never advise women on how to be better lawyers.

But having a group of men tell an audience of women how to succeed reinforces the idea that lawyering is a man’s job; it reinforces the falsehood that female attorneys aren’t as good as their male counterparts. It sets up an old power dynamic wherein men teach and women learn, and men are superior and women subordinate. It assumes that women, as a group, have a “problem.”

To highlight how ridiculous this is, try reversing the genders. Can you imagine a group of successful, highly-educated male attorneys getting together to ask “What’s our problem?,” followed by a woman-only panel discussing the men’s strengths and weaknesses and the overall legal work of male attorneys?

It wouldn’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen, because it’s condescending and frankly insulting.

After push-back from female attorneys and a boycott threatened, the Bar Association tweaked the panels and scrapped the all-male feature. But this panel almost went forward in a country where half of all law school graduates are women – and have been since 1992 – but where women still have difficulty climbing the legal career ladder, and still do not come close to equality when you look at the gender break-down of judges, partners and senior attorneys.

Women should not have to feel like outsiders in the legal world. But panels like this bolster the assumption that attorneys are by default male – and that “women lawyers” are a separate class. Maybe that’s the problem.

15 comments for “Tips from the Other Side

  1. January 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Good video. I really like the point about male “default”, I’ve been very interested in the invisibility of privilege for a while. I actually hadn’t heard anything about this before this video, and as I read and learn more- it just becomes harder and harder for me to understand how people could do something this obtuse and not have someone tap them on the shoulder during the early planning stages.

    As for your monotone- I’m always surprised at how inexpressive I am in family videos or pictures, I think sometimes people overestimate their affectations and ultimately come off as cold or bored.

  2. January 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    That wasn’t monotone. That was, in fact, quite good. Nicely done.

  3. January 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    Very professional!

    “Can you imagine a group of successful, highly-educated male attorneys getting together to ask “What’s our problem?,” followed by a woman-only panel discussing the men’s strengths and weaknesses and the overall legal work of male attorneys?”

    Strangely enough, if we can get past the condescending and annoying part, I think the above could be really quite interesting. One of the issues that I see with the legal profession (being a total layperson, so please pick up your grain of salt now) is that the system is set up in such a way that it is virtually impossible to succeed in many firms unless you have a caretaker or “wife” at home taking care of the details of daily living. The hours a brand new lawyer has to put in are *staggering* and in my lay opinion, pretty unnecessary and archaic. I saw much the same thing happen with medical residencies at the University were I used to work as secretary. The residents’ schedules were brutal, and I’m not surprised that most of them were married with spouses who took up the work of daily life at home. It’s a crazy way to live. But the response I’ve gotten when I’ve asked about it is “That’s just the way it is. It’s always been that way.” with no interest in exploring other avenues of thought/procedure. As if the folks in charge believe that the folks coming up have to pay their dues in exactly the same way they did, and the fact that society has changed since the dues were set up is irrelevant. I’d LOVE to see that deconstructed. As well as the “female lawyers must wear hose and heels” bit. Wear them if you want to, but please don’t inflect them on others.

    / my $.02. Carry on! :)

    • January 28, 2010 at 5:25 pm

      That’s a good point, Laurie. The legal profession definitely does require some sort of household help — whether it’s a “wife” or someone you hire. I’m a young lawyer and I live with a room mate, but she’s a teacher, so we can more easily share household duties because her hours just aren’t as bad as mine. And when I’m super busy and don’t have time to contribute to the household, I end up paying for a housekeeper (something I never thought I would do), because it’s just not fair to put it all on her. So you’re right that the dedication legal work requires only works if there’s an at-home support system.

      That said, I do think that law firm culture is changing. I certainly don’t feel pressure to wear hose and heels every day (although I usually do, because I don’t like the way slacks look on me). A lot of women, at least in my office, don’t feel the need to play super-femme-y dress-up in order to look professional (although again, some of us do and that’s ok too). But then again, when I was interviewing for law firm jobs, there was a LOT of discussion about whether we had to wear pantyhose (it was August in NY, so I went with ‘no’), and whether it was a bad idea to wear pant suits as opposed to skirt suits. Since some law firms didn’t even allow female attorneys to wear pants well into the 1990s, a lot of us went with skirts. For the married and engaged students, whether to wear their ring was also an issue — most women I knew took the ring off during interviews, so as not to imply that they were going to take this job and then have kids and leave. Kind of troubling.

  4. Alison
    January 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    Not monotone :)

    nicely done

  5. Eronarn
    January 28, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    “To highlight how ridiculous this is, try reversing the genders. Can you imagine a group of successful, highly-educated male attorneys getting together to ask “What’s our problem?,” followed by a woman-only panel discussing the men’s strengths and weaknesses and the overall legal work of male attorneys?

    It wouldn’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen, because it’s condescending and frankly insulting.”

    Um, excuse me?

    I am not a lawyer, but I have been to conferences (psychology, drug policy) that have had panels close to the description you provide. They are generally not gender-segregated, but the roles are the same. The white men (sometimes only one) on the panel talk about how white men aren’t doing enough to make their traditionally white-male-dominated field inclusive enough. The rest of the panel consists of people that aren’t white men doing, well, pretty much exactly what you malign.

    I think you’re a bit too harsh on panels like that as in my experience they aren’t “condescending and frankly insulting” – they’re valuable in the right domain. There just has to be some legitimate grounds on which one group can be expected to know more than the other. That isn’t the case here, but that’s only because it is about “overall legal work”, not because of the way in which men and women are talking about each other.

  6. January 28, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    So glad to hear it’s changing. :) Really.

  7. MsFeasance
    January 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    As much as law firm culture may be changing in New York, those same old stereotypes are alive and thrashing in the Southeast. The career services office at my law school told us all not to wear pantsuits to interviews. Why? Because it “conveys subtle disrespect to the hiring partners, who are mostly men.” And most women are encouraged not to mention that they have kids, if they have them, or to not wear engagement or wedding rings to interviews. In men, this conveys “solid investment.”

  8. Andrea
    January 28, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Wow, I’m so glad that some of the most fundamental people in our justice system also, it turns out, are the most overtly sexist. No pant suits? No wedding rings? Deny you have kids or have ever had the thought cross your mind to appease some inevitably male partner? So I guess they’re all making up their own personal definitions of “justice” then. Sweet.

  9. Alice
    January 29, 2010 at 12:25 am

    The career services person at my University went so far as to say we (women) should not wear a coloured shirt under our suit jacket – only black suits with white shirts would do. I’m not sure what fashion advise she gave to the men, but I’m thinking probably none.

    At the women’s law forum of the Bar Association in the Province where I articled, a female Judge was invited to speak to the group about the expierences of women in the law. It’s funny how the conversation was 80% about appropriate court attire. I’m glad I attended that forum though. Otherwise, how would I know that I shouldn’t have my breasts hanging out when I’m in court??

    Although I fully respect an individual’s right to wear whatever they feel is appropriate and flattering, the notion that a woman in a pantsuit is disrespectful is infuriating. I wouldn’t want to work in an office where that was still kicking around. I often wear skirts to work too though, as I also enjoy the look. And luckily for me, I work in a legal clinic where jeans are acceptable (unless I have to attend court, of course, in which case I wear my best tube top).

  10. January 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    No vocal coach needed, in my opinion–thing is, you came off sincere and professional, instead of sort of artificial, which is how folks often act in front of a camera. I felt you were doing exactly what vocal coaches tell folks to do–when speaking directly into the camera, imagine you’re talking to some actual person.

    (As to the content: I can’t believe that y’all have to put up with sh*t like that in professional settings. Ack.)

  11. Becca
    January 29, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I used to work in the Litigation department at a large corporation. We put on a week long seminar for young lawyers in firms that worked for us to give help them with courtroom skills in case they ever represented us in court. At the end of the week, they all participated in a mock trial with mock jurors who were people from the general public and didn’t know who was putting on the event. After the mock trial a person from our group interviewed the jurors to get their opinions on the attorneys. It was interesting to see what kind of comments they had. Quite a few of them didn’t like it when the female attorneys wore pants suits and thought they women in skirt suits were more professional. They also commented on hairstyles. To be fair they did comment on the attire of some of the men as well (“he looks like an attorney in that suit”, etc.) but not as often. And many of them commented that it was nice to see so many women representing us. But it was really frustrating because all of the attorneys there were smart, good lawyers and were there to learn how to be better at their jobs, not what to wear to court.

  12. January 29, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    This reminds me of that recent New Yorker cartoon: “The subject of tonight’s discussion…”. It’s amazing to me they ever thought an all-male panel on a gender issue was a good idea, before you even get to the, well, judicial tone of the topic. Good on you for speaking out about this stuff.

  13. January 30, 2010 at 3:41 am

    Well done, Jill!

    The way in which the bar posits the problem (sexist male attorneys) as the solution (women imbibing wisdom from the old boys) calls for a head-desk moment.

  14. Marksman2000
    January 30, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Bravo, Jill. Good job.

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