April 02, 2019 Article

Be Bold, Be Brave: Female Attorneys and Inappropriate Clients

How do we respond to the continuance of sexual harassment and uncomfortable behavior experienced in our profession?

By Jeana Goosmann and Anna Limoges

Picture this: You are defending your client after he has been accused of sexual harassment, retaliation, and battery. He comes into the office for a meeting about the upcoming hearing on the summary judgment motion you filed. Despite your professional appearance, he states, “Are you trying to rival Pamela Anderson?” Caught off guard, you tell him his comment is inappropriate. After the meeting, he asks if you want to go for a drink and you tell him “No, thank you.” His response to your rejection is to grab you by the back of your head and kiss you, stuffing his tongue down your throat. You push him off and the moment is not brought up again until he sends you a gift: a bottle of tequila that you give away immediately. Later on, you ask yourself: Was I wearing something suggestive?

Or you are representing a CEO and trial is out of town in a couple weeks. When speaking about the hotel conference room that will be the “prep” room before and during the trial, your client asks you if you can line up a call girl who should have an hourly rate that is no more than yours. Despite how uncomfortable and stunned the comment makes you, you make a joke and state the only other person coming is another male attorney. 

Unfortunately, these scenarios are true stories from recent interviews. This shocking behavior, while not new, is still happening. “According to a Law360 survey in October 2018, one in four women working in the legal industry said they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” See Is Time Really Up for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?. In fact, “[47] percent of the female respondents believe sexual harassment is tolerated in their organization, and [45] percent had no confidence that senior leadership is addressing the issue.”  

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, female lawyers are speaking up and sharing their stories on Facebook group boards and talking about it more openly. Women like Ally Coll Steele, an associate in the Washington, D.C. area, shared that she was groped by a senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Ironically, when she told her story she also learned her employer was investigating the women who had allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Steele became bold, and other women in her firm formed a partnership called the National Women’s Law Center, a pro bono organization put Steele and other women in leadership roles. Steele later left the firm and founded the Purple Campaign to assist companies in implementing stronger sexual harassment policies and legislation. 

Another woman leading the way on attacking issues we face is ABA President Hilary Bass. She announced she is leading an initiative to shed light on the issues that female attorney’s face in our field and why women leave the law. The goal is to keep women from leaving the profession due to a variety of reasons, including sexual harassment. The program points out that “the profession is suffering a tremendous talent drain when almost half of law school graduates are women yet most of them do not reach senior levels of the profession.” See Initiative Overview and Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law. One result of the initiative is a resolution passed by the ABA that declared that “the American Bar Association urges all . . . employers in the legal profession, to adopt and enforce policies and procedures that prohibit, prevent, and promptly redress harassment and retaliation based on sex. . . . [and state to all employees] that harassment . . . will not be tolerated.” See Resolution 302.  

Despite all the efforts thus far, the immediate questions still remain: How do you respond when the perpetrator is your big client of the firm? How do you navigate the rough waters of what you think could be a career killer and keep your boat afloat?  

Although responses will vary and depend on the situation, reactions to being subjected to sexual harassment and paternalism range from fear to rage, but the initial gut reaction is to end the behavior. In the first scenario above, the female attorney was never alone with that client again with the door closed. In the second, the female attorney, while stunned and caught off guard, ended the situation by joking away the behavior and turning her focus to the trial (which had a successful outcome). What these real-life stories teach us is that we all need to keep talking and listening to one another because these situations happen whether you are brand new to practicing law or a 25-year lead attorney.  

After the shock of what happened subsides, some may question how they caused the situation. But you need to remember it is not your fault and there is no perfect response. It does not matter whether the violating behavior came from a client, your boss, or a judge—it was wrong. We need to stick together. We need to stay aware and lift each other up. We need to learn how to erase self-blame and shame. We all want to work for employers, clients, and partners and in an industry that stands by our side when we respond and help stop the behavior. In the meantime, keep safe, speak up, and set boundaries. Together we can stay aware, be bold, and be brave. 

Jeana Goosmann is the CEO and managing attorney and Anna Limoges is an attorney at Goosmann Law Firm with locations in Sioux City, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Omaha, Nebraska.

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