June 06, 2011 Articles

Carry the Profession Forward by Being Prepared

Judge Patricia Fawsett and General Magistrate Linh Ison share their experiences and offer tips for women litigators.

By Christine M. Ho

I was fortunate enough to speak with Judge Patricia Fawsett, a senior judge in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and General Magistrate Linh Ison for Domestic Relations and Mental Health in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in and for Orange County, Florida. First of all, I would like to thank Judge Fawsett and Magistrate Ison for taking the time to speak with me. These two very accomplished women shared with me their experiences and litigation tips for practitioners, especially women litigators.

Judge Fawsett received her J.D. from the University of Florida in 1973. From 1973 until 1986, she was in private practice at Akerman Senterfitt, focusing primarily on commercial litigation. She was nominated to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and was confirmed by the Senate that same year. Judge Fawsett served as the chief judge for the Middle District from 2003 until 2008. In August 2008, she took senior status and still presides in the Middle District.

Magistrate Ison obtained her bachelor's degree from Florida State University in 1992. After working in the private sector for a couple of years, Magistrate Ison received her J.D., as well as her M.B.A., from Stetson University in 1998. In 2006, Magistrate Ison was appointed as the General Magistrate for Osceola County Domestic Relations, Dependency, and Mental Health by the Honorable Belvin Perry Jr., the Chief Judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit in and for Orange and Osceola Counties, Florida. Today, she acts as the General Magistrate for Domestic Relations and Mental Health, but works from Orange County.  

I spoke with Judge Fawsett about her experience as one of the first women commercial litigators in Orlando. She recounted a story typical of the time when it was unusual to see a woman attorney in court. While she was sitting in the hallway waiting for a hearing in Daytona Beach, the judge on her case came out of his hearing room and asked her to wait. After returning to his hearing room, he came back out with another male judge. Pointing to Judge Fawsett, he stated, “Wait, wait, see, there she is—a woman litigator!” Judge Fawsett noted that during that time, it was unusual for a woman to want to work outside of the home and to actually enjoy litigation. She further stated that she had to work exceptionally hard as one of the first women commercial litigators in Orlando, but that as long as she was prepared, she was able to be an effective advocate for her clients.

Judge Fawsett stated that when she was in private practice, it was a “period of adjustment” for the men in the legal profession. As Judge Fawsett recalled, she attended a litigation seminar in which she was the only woman litigator in attendance. When the instructor spoke about how the male attorneys should dress, she raised her hand and asked what she should wear. The instructor admitted that he had dreaded the possibility that she would ask him such a question and stated that he had no idea what women litigators should wear. Such an answer demonstrates the lack of guidance as to even basic matters and just how much has changed in the legal profession today.

In contrast to the litigation seminar instructor befuddled by Judge Fawsett, Magistrate Ison had a great deal to share on the issue of women litigators’ dress. Magistrate Ison noted that she has seen many women litigators who did not dress appropriately for court, donning casual dresses or short skirts with open-toe shoes. She advised, “A woman litigator has to dress appropriately. It is all a part of the presentation. It is not just your arguments but it is also how you project to the court.” Magistrate Ison recounted one occasion in which a woman litigator appeared before her, wearing capri pants and sandals. Although the woman later apologized to her, Magistrate Ison found her dress to be quite inappropriate, and it made a lasting impression on her.

Wardrobe, however, is only one part of projecting a professional and positive image in court. Judge Fawsett noted that a woman litigator cannot appear too aggressive before jurors. On the other hand, Magistrate Ison found some women attorneys to be too quiet and soft-spoken when appearing before her. Magistrate Ison stated that a woman litigator should project her voice so that everyone can hear her. Moreover, projecting one’s voice shows confidence.

Both Magistrate Ison and Judge Fawsett agreed that regardless of sex, all litigators need to be prepared. As Judge Fawsett emphasized, “It’s a matter of preparation, commitment and ability across the board, regardless of gender.”

Magistrate Ison stated that litigators who were organized with their case law and ready with copies for her and opposing counsel impressed her. On the other end of the spectrum, Judge Fawsett found that some litigators commonly make the mistake of not thoroughly researching the case law cited in their written submissions. She noted that litigators should be aware if a case has been reversed and should not rely merely on case headnotes.

Finally, Judge Fawsett noted that today’s legal profession is quite different from her days in private practice. Women litigators now regularly appear before her, and many jurors have commented to her after a case is finished on the efficacy of these women attorneys. Judge Fawsett stated that the women litigators appearing before her were bright and articulate and that they “carry the profession forward.”

I learned from my interviews with Judge Fawsett and Magistrate Ison that the legal profession has had to adapt to the ever-increasing presence of women litigators, but one thing remains constant—all litigators should be prepared.