The Trials of a Woman Lawyer

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.

Black and white photo of women in formal court attire
Ethel Benjamin, first woman admitted as a lawyer in New Zealand. Also one of very few people who make the wig and bands look good.

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.

Scale with blue male figure on one side, a pink female figure on the other
We all know the scale of justice doesn't really weigh things up equally... From

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.


By Cesy

Cesy grew up in a sheep farm in New Zealand. Accordingly some of her views are a bit strange.

20 replies on “The Trials of a Woman Lawyer”

I’m just going to say that it’s sheer fear and frustration of ‘a simple woman’ being in ‘their’ place and maybe even being better. Because men like that won’t be nice and emancipated outside their jobs, they will still be male pigs that think females are there for their comfort.

My mother is a partner in an all female firm. 100% female office, secretaries and all. They actually re-purposed the men’s restroom as a little dishwashing area. I’m always very proud to brag about my mom.  When she was a kid, girls just didn’t grow up to become lawyers. Women were teachers, or secretaries, or nurses, or mothers, but never lawyers.

I suspect her advice to you would be the same advice you already received: You can’t change what people do or say, but you can change your reaction to it (not bad advice for life, actually). She’s remarkably good at not letting things get to her (easier said than done, right?); If it’s not productive to dwell on, she moves on. She’s a busy woman and won’t be distracted by no bullshit!

It’s hard to know what to say in terms of encouragement because this isn’t the kind of problem that fixes itself overnight (but things are changing, albeit slowly!). Though there are tons of asshole clients out there, there are also clients who might actually prefer having a female lawyer. There are all kinds of people out there who need legal counsel (including women!). Maybe your struggles now will make you a better lawyer in the long term.

Stay strong!

Your mother is the type of women I’d love to be when I grow up :) Not dwelling on it has been something I found hard, but I’m working on it!

You’re precisely right about some clients preferring to see a female lawyer, I do see that occasionally. In that situation it is normally a woman who has suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of a man, and I can  completely appreciate that.

Thanks for your kind words, I hope I can be a good lawyer, I’m still such a newbie at the moment that a lot of things seem insurmountable, but things are improving, you’re right. It’s just damn slow!

Thanks for the perspective. I originally considered entering the legal field, but realized that the hours would probably kill me. I imagine the sexism would have been quite a slap in the face for me, as my aunt has worked for a female lawyer for most of my life and I have never heard of the sexism from anyone at her office. Actually, the firm she works for is now one of the largest in the state, and is run overwhelmingly by women. I believe they only have one male lawyer. Because of this, I didn’t even think of the sexism in the field until a few years ago. Those women are so amazing that I can’t imagine them taking sexist shit from anyone, but I imagine now that they probably do. It’s awful you have to go through that. I applaud your strength!

I’m very fortunate that my work does not expect me to burn the midnight oil unless I want to, and when I do my boss quietly gives me shit for doing it!

Sometimes you just have to wear it to do your job. I’ve had one situation where I felt quite threatened and scared by the actions of man I was dealing with in a professional capacity. I took my complaint through the right channels, but we didn’t really get anywhere, and in the end I decided to drop the complaint as it was chewing me up inside and that meant I wasn’t acting in the best interest of my client.  I hate that I had to, but I decided it was the best for my sanity and for the client. I couldn’t waste another full day crying over it again.

I feel the same (in hating everybody and hating everything but loving you Susan).

I think it was the barristers who fucked me off the most. Supposedly intelligent men. I had to talk to the tits staring one yesterday and it took all my might not to smash my head on my desk while on the phone.

Ouf. To be honest, I have not had this experience. Then again, I am still in training. It might very well be that when I am a proper lawyer, many people will still want to treat me like the wee trainee.

And I cannot close my eyes to the fact that here it is the same way: women make up more than half of the graduates, and only about 3% of partners. And that is most likely NOT due to lack of talent or skills. Sigh.

I feel for you and the things you have to put up with! Urgh, I wouldn’t even know how to react to that in a professional way. But I have been told I have a pretty mean stare when annoyed, so maybe I won’t even have to say something.

Lets just hope that we are the generation that makes it  a little easier on the ones that come after. Baby steps.

Yeah I have to admit,  in law school, these issues did not come up. The real world sadly is a different kettle of fish.

You’re right about making it easier down the line for the next generation of lawyers. I’m incredibly grateful for our predecessors because they had to put up with some unbelievable shit  so we can be at the stage we are now, because God knows it was not easy for them and still is not easy.

Also honestly, how you deal with it does come down to practice a lot. The ones who have been doing it for a while have it down pat. They have told me that yes, it does get to them, but they know how to deal with it. It’s taking me a while to get to that stage, but I’m getting there.

One of my bosses is a woman (I’m a legal assistant), and she’s absolutely brilliant. She’s that kind of socially-awkward super brilliant. She’s been doing the job for a long-ass time and she has drive like no one I’ve ever met.
My other boss is a man. I’m pretty sure that all he’s done for the past two days is watch things on YouTube. He leaves early, he comes in late, very much the opposite of my lady-boss.
Yet, people would prefer my male boss to represent them because he’s a man. That can be the only reason. He’s also old. But, to be fair, he started lawyering in his mid-forties, so it’s not like he’s the most experienced guy in the firm either. It’s so frustrating. I feel for you, girl.

It’s incredibly frustrating that women in the legal profession rarely get the kudos they deserve, or if they do, they have to do it in a “female” area, such as family law. It almost seems a successful woman criminal barrister or civil litigator is like a unicorn, a mythical beast who appears only rarely then is never heard of again….

I was recently on a conference call with a colleague and an adversary; I’ve been practicing for 10 years, and she’s been out of school for at least 20. Our adversary called her “miss” and “sweetheart” during the call, my blind rage kicked in, and she moved past it like nothing happened.

She has wisdom and I have lots of rage. But I refuse to accept that there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve lasted this long, and I’m not about to give up that fight yet. “Eventually all the sexist, racist jerks will die or retire” doesn’t work for me as a life plan.

I’m not telling anyone else how they need to respond to institutional sexism and bias. That’s an individual choice. I’m just trying to navigate this profession in a way that makes sense for me. Trying.

Yeah  I was very disheartened to hear this woman tell me there is little I can do about the sexism we face. There’s got to be something! If only kicking them all was professional. I had a client try and hit on me yesterday, “Miss, I’ve gotta tell you you look nice today”. I told him I was acting as his lawyer, I was a professional and that he shouldn’t say that to me.  How I look has nothing to do with my instructions to act for him.

I think your point about trying to negotiate this profession in the best way that works from them is an incredibly valid point. For some people just letting it slide is the best for them. Like you, I’m at the point of feeling rage with it, and I’m not willing to be called sweetheart or pandered to because of my gender.

Sometimes you just want to scream and yell but then professionalism and ethics prevent you from doing so. I find my stern voice and face and a raised hand have done wonders. I’m not having people think they can speak over me because I’m a short young lady. It’s crucially important the clients tell their story, but I’m the one guiding how that story is told so I can work out what the legal issue. If they insist on going on a continued rant, my ability to give them legal advice is limited and I make that point very clear.

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