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Boot Camp, Esq.

Ask Allison

Allison Jackson Mathis

Dear Allison,

What would be your advice in this “me too” era to us older, perhaps coarser, members of the profession? Those of us “good old boys” who, truly, mean no offense? Should we stay away from all female attorneys, especially the young? Leave doors unopened? Shove off of elevators first? Make no eye contact with anyone born after 1970? How does one prevent being accused of harassment or assault when one is merely trying to show deference and respect to the fairer sex?


Crusty Codger

Dear Crusty,

Ah, the “good old boys” who just don’t know any better. Just how old must the “good old boys” be now? History tells us that women have been practicing in US courts since Margaret Brent successfully petitioned to liquidate Lord Baltimore’s cattle holdings to pay off a bunch of mercenaries in Maryland in 1648—though admittedly formal female advocacy was still rare at that time and for centuries after. But this is hardly the early days of the women’s equality movement, and surely every lawyer in 2019, even the crustiest of them, has worked with, around, or for a woman at some point.

One wonders, when one receives letters such as this one, whether the letter writer himself would be offended if the same female attorneys he is so concerned with treated him with an effusive amount of concern because of his advanced years? If, over his objection, they tucked napkins over his tie at lunch so his shaking, liver-spotted hands did not spill a drop of soup; if they rushed to him with well-intentioned ear-horns to help him hear the judge’s pronouncements; if they patted the top of his shiny pate after they ushered him into unnecessary but hastily provided wheelchairs.

You remind me, gentle and beloved correspondent, of an often-repeated vignette about a former Oxford chancellor, Maurice Bowra. In the first half of the 20th century, Bowra, along with several other well-known and distinguished male lecturers and fellows, often took to nude bathing at a scenic spot known as Parson’s Pleasure. Yes, I am serious about both the activity and the name of the location and no, there was nothing funny about it; that’s just what the good old boys did back then, if you will trust and believe. The spot was secluded and, though there were often tour boats chugging down the river, Parson’s Pleasure was protected from their view because of a series of large rocks and shallow water that prevented the boats from crossing over into the fork that contained the skinny-dipping scholars. Not that anyone wanted to see a selection of the world’s palest hides, mind you.

Of course, one fine day, the river was running high and a boat full of fine ladies (imagine petticoats and parasols, Beloved) sailed unassumingly over the rocks and down the fork, smack dab into Parson’s Pleasure. Shrill screams ensued from both parties—fine ladies reeled in shock and horror, and the good old boys of Oxford, sheepish on the banks of the river, instinctively covered their . . . ahem . . . dangling participles. Except our friend and eminent scholar Maurice Bowra, who quickly moved his hands to cover his face. “I don’t know about the rest of you fellows,” he thundered, “but around here, at least, I’m known by my face.”

I hope beyond hope that you, my charming correspondent, are also known by your pleasant countenance around your local courthouse, and not by your wagging genitals, as, it seems, so many of the self-identified “good old boy” attorneys are known. It appears to your Darling Allison that usually the type of folks who ask the kind of questions posed in your letter are really not seeking true advice, and are more often trying to decry something they don’t fully understand and somehow “punish” those who ask for professional consideration. Strangely, these people are also the ones who never actually ignore young female attorneys and continue, instead, with unwanted and undesired attentions.

But I will assume, Crusty, that you are actually seeking guidance on your behavior and will do my best to assist you in your quest to treat people appropriately. I think you will find that it is actually quite simple. In short: Be professional. The real elements of professionalism have not really changed over the past hundred years, though thankfully the look of the profession itself has greatly diversified. What it means to be professional is that we focus on colleagues’ ideas, work, and contributions rather than their gender, appearance, or social status. There may be some idea that professionalism is some type of “Mad Men”-era clubhouse where men clinked glasses of scotch with each other and groped their secretaries, but that type of behavior was not professional, either.

As lawyers, maybe especially as lawyers in the criminal justice arena, a huge part of our job is to be able to read other people and determine their reactions to us—we negotiate with opposing counsel, assess our clients’ and witnesses’ credibility, and observe when the judge and jury are buying what we are selling. Considering this, it is incredible how many attorneys seem completely unaware of how unwanted their sexual attentions are to other attorneys, and mistake the sometimes-awkward but consensual and enjoyable pursuit of flirtation with the uncomfortable squirming of the unwilling victim of grotesque, unrequited attention. It is incredible because it actually defies credibility and your Dear Allison, for one, does not believe it. There have been too many occasions when I have been witness to or victim of a “good old boy” breathing his fetid breath at a neckline, or making direct and unsolicited “jokes.” These things are intentional and conscious, and you know when you are doing it.

We open doors for others not because they are female or elderly and are incapable of doing so themselves, but because they are other people in this world and it is a nice thing to do for another person. We allow others to get off of the elevator before us because we appreciate orderliness and because we were raised not to shove, most especially, hopefully, in places where we are supposed to have increased levels of respect and respectability—like the workplace and, even more so, the courthouse.

There is room, of course, for social interaction between lawyers, and there are even times when two people might make a connection that began as professional and transformed into something personal. If you are hoping for such a thing to transpire between you and another member of the legal field, remember that something someone is likely to consider either harassment or assault is unlikely to spark romance, but warm professionalism and respect for a person’s character and work may lead to more fulfilling personal opportunities in time if both parties are willing.

All of that to say, that in general, there is one simple rule: If you find yourself about to make a comment to a fellow attorney—be they young, old, male, or female—you should ask yourself whether that comment is motivated in any way by your or their genitals. If the answer is no, then you are probably safe. If the answer is yes, you should probably not say it.

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Allison Jackson Mathis

Allison Jackson Mathis is a criminal defense attorney, currently working as the tribal advocate for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington State.