Hi, my name is Cesy, I am a woman and I am a lawyer. Since I began practicing eight months ago, I’ve had a glimpse of how hard it can be to be a woman lawyer and I wanted to share what I’ve seen and heard with you all. It appears that the lot of women in the law has improved matters for sure, but there is much that is still problematic.
While at university, I admit to being, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the issues a woman would face in practice. Sure, I wrote assignments about how women now make up the vast majority of law graduates but how this is not being reflected in the judiciary or partnership percentages, but I just didn’t get it. I had the naive belief that my knowledge, dedication and can-do attitude would see me right in the cut-throat legal profession. Oh, how wrong I was.
Eight months ago, I began working as a lawyer in a community law centre, where we provide free legal services to those who cannot access traditional legal services for various reasons. Three out of the four lawyers are women (the only male in the office is our boss). In my workplace, to the greater extent, my gender is immaterial. I am truly satisfied that my workplace, it is how I work and the results I achieve that are crucial, not my gender (I realise how lucky I am in relation to this. I do dislike that I have to consider myself lucky that this is the case, but that’s half the point of this article!). However, some clients and other lawyers certainly do have an issue with lawyers who are women. It appears many people still think that a young solicitor with five plus years of legal training and experience who happens to be a woman has no place giving legal advice.
On an almost daily basis, another younger lawyer and I have been spoken down to, disrespected or had our legal advice disregarded, all because of our gender. This is not to say that all of our clients have acted in such a way, indeed, the vast majority are incredibly grateful for our assistance. But when a client makes baseless comments about my abilities because of my gender, it became hard not to take it personally. I’ve had a client say to me, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d be any good because of your fancy nails.” I was so taken aback by that statement. My nails somehow indicate my ability as a lawyer? If I had been a young male lawyer wearing a South Park tie, would he have said to me, “Oh, I didn’t think you’d be any good because of your silly tie?” I think not. He was judging my ability based on something that has no bearing on my ability as a lawyer, but did relate to my gender.
My colleague has had a man blatantly say to her, “Oh, you only think that because you’re a woman.” He had sought her advice in an area of law she is exceptionally experienced in and passionate about. When she relayed this to me, I expressed a huge amount of disbelief that her gender would have blatantly affected the advice she provided to the man. It seemed at that stage we were fighting a losing battle relating to our gender and our careers.
After these incidents, our (male) boss thought it was a good idea for us to have a chat with an experienced female lawyer. We took her out for coffee and she shared some cold hard facts with us. In her 20 years of experience, she said that issues like this just do not change. She told us that we will always come across the bigots who believe that our gender means we are unable to be effective lawyers. It was disheartening to hear that we could never do anything about this systemic sexism we were facing. She informed us that what we can do is change our reactions to the situation. She said the best course of action was to act professionally, and back ourselves. I expressed a frustration that I felt I haven’t been taken seriously, and how I wanted to waive my various degrees and practising certificates at these people to prove that yes, I am a fully qualified and competent lawyer! However, it was rightly pointed out to me that I shouldn’t do that, because a man would never have to prove his credentials.
After that, I felt personally a huge increase in confidence dealing with difficult clients. I backed my knowledge of the law, I made clear in what aspects I could assist clients, and I refused to put up with any disrespect aimed at me. Most of the time, the frustration is at the situation and not directly relating to me, but I don’t have to wear the frustration. I provide free legal advice and assistance; I deserve some respect and cooperation.
So while we may have a handle on how to deal with the difficult clients, some of the other lawyers are a different matter. Of particular note have been a couple of “old-school” criminal barristers. One came up to my colleague and myself at a forum and said, “If you don’t mind girls, how much do you earn in a year?” Firstly, being called “girls” set my teeth on edge. Secondly, he did not aim that question at us, he aimed it at my colleague’s breasts. Thirdly, on what planet is it appropriate to ask someone how much they earn?
As I said, “I’m not going to answer that question,” a fellow lawyer and good friend of ours who knows this barrister well took charge. “You can’t ask them that, how much do you think they earn?” she asked of him.
“Oh [figure ridiculously more than we actually earn]” was his reply.
“Don’t be stupid, find me a junior [lawyer] in this region who is earning that much,” she retorted, and quickly shut him out of the conversation. He left the forum, and we discussed how utterly inappropriate it was of him to ask what he did, and in the manner he did. We were flabbergasted that in 2012, a supposedly professional man considered this to be appropriate interaction with female colleagues.
The next week, I was appearing in Court on a minor criminal matter. I turned up early and took my seat at counsel’s table. I stepped out of Court to discuss a matter with my client and came back to discover my folder had been thrown across the table and someone sitting where I had been. Apparently I had taken the seat of a local barrister. I had initially taken the seat I thought would be the most inoffensive. The front right seat is reserved for the senior lawyers, therefore I had taken the back left one as the most junior lawyer appearing that day. There had been nothing graceful or friendly about my folder being thrown across the table. As I sat in my new seat, the offending barrister gave me a look of disdain. I was the only female lawyer appearing that day. Again, I couldn’t help feeling that this wouldn’t have happened to a male lawyer making his second appearance in Court.
So in eight short months, I’ve seen experienced more than my fair share of sexism against female lawyers. As the wise female lawyer told us, there is very little we can do about it, which I find disheartening. But knowing I’m not alone and that there are strategies and ways of dealing with it helps. Who knows, hopefully soon people will stop putting the word “female” in front of my job title and I’ll just be treated like the lawyer that I am. I can only hope.