April 20, 2020 Ask Allison

Underestimate Me. Please.

Allison Jackson Mathis

Dear Allison,

Are there specific challenges to being a female public defender/defense attorney? I know there have always been hurdles for women, but I wonder if you think that’s still a problem in this progressive day and age?

Yours,
Wondering Wally

Dearest Darling Wally,

Why yes. There are. And yes. It is. But sometimes it is advantageous to be a woman in this game, though that doesn’t make it fair.

Once, when I was home during the day studying for the bar exam, a man showed up to repair my air conditioner. “Sign here,” he said, proffering me a clipboard after he’d fixed the A/C. “You can have your husband read the terms of it later.” I laughed because I thought he was kidding, but then realized he wasn’t. I signed, and thanked him, wondering if I should have said anything or whether I should just quietly savor this moment of 50s era sexism that was brought right to my door.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Women weren’t even allowed to sit on juries in Texas until 1954, so I imagine things are significantly better for your Darling Allison than they were for those daring lawyers who argued cases before juries that they wouldn’t have been permitted to sit on. And I do think things are improving.

Young female attorneys are sometimes confronted with the old-ness and male-ness of the profession and don’t remember enough what our dear departed Christopher Hitchens warned us, to “remember that all experts are mammals.” In my humble and limited experience, the older and male-er of the species do not see young females as a threat to their position and are often more willing to give advice and assistance to women. My own perspective on this outmoded idea is to take advantage, as much as one can, of the benefits of being underestimated in this way.

Although this field has definitely been a boys’ club for a long time, some of the fiercest attorneys with the best win-records are women. Largely, I think this is because those attorneys are brilliant, passionate people with a lot of knowledge and expertise, and their skill has nothing to do with their gender. But I also think there are stereotypes that people rely on about women that we can use to our advantage in the courtroom. For example, if I have a big, tattooed, scary-looking client who is charged with a gruesome crime, and I’m willing to sit next to him and put my delicate little paw on his shoulder, sometimes that makes him look a little less intimidating to the jury or the judge. I think women are less likely to be assumed to be crafty or crooked, while older male attorneys often face the stereotype of the “lying” lawyer, especially in front of a jury.

Surprisingly, I have had very few clients who told me that they didn’t want me to be their attorney because I was a woman. In fact, I can only think of one, which was while I was volunteering at a Legal Aid clinic and an older gentleman who was very clearly mentally ill told me that he was uncomfortable talking to me because when he “imagined this (he) imagined talking to a man.” He said he’d talked to a female legal secretary once before, and that she constantly asked him impertinent questions, so he didn’t think I would be a good fit. Sometimes, gentle reader, it’s not the time or place to try and teach someone something, so I quietly asked the facilitator to find the client a new, and male, attorney.

Talking about a criminal offense, or being arrested, or your crummy childhood, or things that happened to you or things you have done is profoundly embarrassing to so many of my clients. I think it’s easier, many times, for male defendants to open up to a woman, and I think it’s generally much easier for a female defendant to open up to a woman. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and there are many male attorneys who are excellent at developing client relationships, but we are speaking in broad terms here.

I did have a client fairly recently who was incredibly rude to me. This was not a case of misunderstanding; this was not a matter of just getting-to-know-you and all your fun quirks; this was aggressive, angry, and loud immediately. After multiple attempts at calming him down, just letting him vent, and trying to get him to listen, much to her disappointment in herself, your dear Allison lost her everlasting patience and rapidly and firmly told him where he might go and what he might do when he got there. Suddenly, his face broke into a huge grin. “There you GO!” he said, “There you GO! I was worried when I saw a young-looking girl come in here to represent me. But you got fire in you. That’s what I want in a lawyer. Ok. I’ll listen.” And, amazingly, he did. I think this kind of testing is fairly normal with some clients who are unsure about having a female attorney, and I feel like this particular test is probably more difficult for female attorneys who are not quite as salty as your Darling AJM.

Men who are aggressive are manly. Women who are aggressive are bitches. And it’s difficult to walk the line between doily and dragon lady (I’ll give you three guesses as to which my default is). There are times, Constant Reader, that I think that if one more male attorney calls me “feisty” (the etymology of which comes from both a derogatory term for a lap dog and from a word meaning “fart”), I will swiftly and effectively render some justice my own damn self. But the truth is, it’s not worth it. I will roll my eyes and laugh it off.

Once, in court, I was heatedly negotiating with a male prosecutor and it got to the point we were arguing more than negotiating, which is not what I wanted to happen. I took a step back, made a joke about something else, and kind of moved on to other things (when you reach an impasse, the best bet, Beloved, is not to keep insisting because then your opponent just digs his heels in deeper). A minute later, as I was perusing another case file, the younger prosecutor casually asked me to hand the senior prosecutor standing close to me a file. As I handed it to the older man, I said, teasingly, “Younger Prosecutor told me to hand you this. And, you know, I do whatever you guys tell me to do.” The older prosecutor responded, “Well, that’s a good attitude for a woman to have.” I laughed. How cliché. How old-fashioned. How retro.

But that was not the time to teach. That comes later. Underestimate me. Please.

Love Always,
AJM

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Allison Jackson Mathis

Allison Jackson Mathis is a public defendrix in Houston, Texas. She has held a variety of criminal defense jobs, including Chief Public Defender of the Republic of Palau, Tribal Advocate for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in LaConner, Washington, and even defended the public while living in a yurt outside of Aztec, New Mexico.