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The Need for Allies in the Legal Profession

Kelly Stout Sanchez

The Need for Allies in the Legal Profession
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I was at a mediation in a large products liability case. A senior partner at my firm and I had been working on the case with out-of-state co-counsel. At one point in the mediation, the out-of-state counsel was talking with our clients about what to consider when and if the defendants got into a reasonable settlement range. Our co-counsel said, “you have two great lawyers here, and Kelly here is just as pretty as can be.” I was stunned into one of those moments of suspended disbelief. With one little quip, he took away any status that I had as a lawyer and as an equal who knew and worked the case for our client; I was reduced and diminished to someone whose only asset to the representation was my physical appearance.

Women Need Allies in the Legal Profession

We all have been there. While the above example is an egregious one, most female attorneys will confirm that sexism is a continued problem in this profession. I imagine that male attorneys do not get asked if they are the court reporter when they walk into a deposition. It is unlikely that male attorneys have clients (whom they have spent time meeting with) who ask them if they are the assistant.

Against this backdrop of an ongoing reality, women must have allies in the legal profession. While law schools are graduating more women than ever before, the percentage of women who are partners in private firms, general counsel for Fortune 500 companies, deans of law schools, and judges (both at the state and federal level) is staggeringly low. The percentage of women of color in those positions is even worse. To address this great disparity, both men and women need to recognize the problem and change their attitudes and actions.

How Men Can Be Allies

Men, being an ally means more than just hiring women associates. Here are a few ideas of how to be a real ally to women in the legal profession:

  • Take a step back to let her step up.
  • Do not interrupt.
  • Create opportunities.
  • Give her the chance to assume a leadership position by arguing the motion she drafted, leading the meeting with the client, and taking witnesses at trial.
  • Pay attention to whom you are hiring and mentoring.
  • Be a mentor.
  • Model behavior that treats woman lawyers as equals.
  • Recruit women to teach CLEs and to participate on panel discussions (for any man you can think of who has expertise in a given area, there is likely a woman with the same expertise and skill).
  • List women as references.

How Women Can Be Allies

Women, we must support one another in this stressful and difficult profession. Here are some ways that we can be allies to one another:

  • Reach out to new female attorneys in your office or in your practice area. Introduce yourself and share your own challenges and experiences with them.
  • Start a regular group meeting for women attorneys. Perhaps a standing monthly coffee invitation for a group of women attorneys. Give yourselves a space to share what you have been through recently (whether professionally or personally) with a group who understands and can empathize. It can also turn into a powerful brainstorming session.
  • Bring younger women attorneys in your office on board for projects and to assist you on cases. We all rise together.

Microaggressions in the Profession

Equal representation of women and women of color in the legal profession at all levels is a process, and one that will not happen overnight. In addition to all of us committing to being allies, we also need to be prepared to deal with the everyday instances of discrimination that women in the legal profession experience regularly. What have become labeled as “microaggressions” are those instances of perhaps indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination. Some fairly routine examples of microaggressions in our profession are:

  • “Isn’t it hard being at work and away from your young kids?” (This question is only asked of working women and is almost never asked of new dads.)
  • “Should I just talk to the partner about that?”
  • “Can you tell the partner that our next step is to do ‘x’ on this case?” (Opposing counsel can’t talk to you about the case and asks you to be the go-between with the partner in your firm.)
  • “The facts of this case might make you too emotional.”

These microaggressions can catch us off guard and frequently result in not responding the way we would really like. Moreover, we can often legitimize microaggressions because they are usually unintentional, and we don’t regard the person making the comment as someone who is sexist. Nonetheless, these comments need to be addressed, or gender stereotypes and discrimination will persist. But what are the appropriate ways to raise concerns about these types of comments and questions? Do you address it in the moment or later? More importantly, are you (the target of the microaggression) the appropriate person to address the concern, or should that come from one of your allies (your law partners, colleagues, supervisors, etc.)? We should not leave it to the young women in our profession to have to call out these discriminatory remarks. It is important for our allies to raise it and take some responsibility for bringing awareness to what might be considered mild and innocuous queries.

Consider the context in which the microaggression is made—the way to respond will be different, whether it is done by opposing counsel in an informal meeting, a comment by a judge during a hearing, or even a client. Discuss with your allies how to handle these types of situations and talk through what might be the most proper and appropriate ways to address these instances of discrimination.

A Witness to Something Extraordinary

About a year ago, I went down to the courthouse to watch a wrongful termination trial that two very well-respected plaintiff trial lawyers were trying together. As I sat in the courtroom to watch and learn, I realized that I was witnessing something extraordinary. The courtroom was filled with women—the two counsel for the plaintiff were women, the two counsel defending the institution were women, and the judge was a woman. This was not a usual sight, and it struck me as an important moment. Let’s all do our part—focus on this issue, become allies, and do the work to make this moment a lasting and common occurrence.