Every summer when I was in Biglaw, a new crop of summer associates would roll in, and I inevitably would be assigned a female summer to mentor. Presumably the intention was for us to bond over our mutual struggles of being women at a law firm. Every fall the same arrangement would take shape again, this time with a first-year associate. Within a week they would each inevitably ask some variation on the same question: “Have you found that being a woman has made it tougher for you at the firm?”
I always hated this question. I’m not sure if I’m lacking something that normally comes with having two X chromosomes, but it never occurred to me to go into my career asking this question right out of the box. So, my answer was always a simple “No.”
I’m not suggesting that sexism isn’t a real problem in law firms. There are countless horror stories to back this up. Biglaw is still an old boys’ club and doesn’t show any signs of changing any time soon. We all know that going in.
But I don’t think that female lawyers do themselves any favors by starting with an expectation that they will be slighted. I never stopped to question whether things were tougher for me as a woman because I was too busy trying to do a good job to spend time searching for ulterior motives. If you make being a good associate your top priority, you’ll likely be too busy to wonder if you’re getting as many assignments as the guys are.
That said, there will be times when legitimate issues of sexism arise. And when they do, there are good and bad ways of dealing with it….
Like many female lawyers, the sexism I experienced usually came from opposing counsel rather than from co-workers. While some of these Neanderthals can be insufferable, the good news is that they don’t control your future, so they’re easier to deal with. And by deal with, I mean ignore.
The examples are endless. One time opposing counsel, who had ignored me throughout an entire arbitration hearing other than to ask me where he could find coffee, made a point at the end of the hearing of shaking everyone’s hand in the room but mine or the court reporter’s (being the only two women in the room). Another time, I was negotiating a pre-trial schedule and opposing counsel sent me countless emails accusing me of “whining” and saying that my refusals to concede to his every demand were “unbecoming.” Moreover, he was “disappointed” in me. Thankfully, I don’t have daddy issues and was able to tell him to stick his disappointment where the sun doesn’t shine.
And don’t assume that female attorneys will be better. Some certainly are, but there is also a common sentiment among female partners that goes something like this: “I had to put up with much worse and sacrifice my personal life to get where I am today, so why should I feel bad for you?” Before you start complaining, assuming that some bond of sisterhood will earn you automatic sympathy, take a second to learn your audience. One of my worst adversaries was a female of counsel who constantly spoke to me like I was five years old and sent me emails telling me that I “didn’t have the right” to disagree with her. I assessed the situation and decided that, given that she was 20 years older than me and doing my same job and chose to go by the name “Ginger” professionally when it wasn’t her given name, I had already won that battle.
The important thing was that I didn’t let incidents like these distract me from the work at hand. Really, they were nothing more than petty annoyances. I could have chosen to react with indignation and moral outrage, but once I was done there would still be hours that needed to be billed. The cases would eventually end and life would go on. And in the end, I got the satisfaction of knowing that these people had to admit that they lost to a girl.
Sexism from clients and coworkers is harder to deal with, because you can’t just ignore it until they go away. If you think it might be happening to you, I suggest stopping and asking yourself one simple question: is the situation making it uncomfortable or impossible to do your job, or can it more accurately described as something that is annoying but doesn’t actually impact your day-to-day life at work? If it’s the former, you should absolutely reach out to a mentor or someone in HR – whoever you most feel comfortable talking to at the office. If someone else’s actions are preventing you from doing your job properly, that is not acceptable. On the other hand, if you just have a vague notion that the partner doesn’t interact with you the same way he does with the male associate down the hall, you’re probably right. You’ll never be invited to share in the latest frat boy humor bandied about by the old boys’ club, but don’t cry over it – God knows we’re already labeled as “emotional.” Take a deep breath, vent your story to friends over drinks, and move on. We’ve all been there.
Biglaw is still figuring out how to deal with “women’s issues.” Often they do a bad job of it and only end up exacerbating the problems. Take one women’s event that I was required to go to – in what I assume was supposed to be a spirit of inclusion, all of the women had to gather over lunch to hear some prominent (in what circles, I don’t know) speaker discuss gender relations in the work place. She started out her presentation by – I kid you not – asking us to brainstorm all the ways in which women and men think differently. She also paired us off and proceeded to address us for the next half hour as “the short one” and “the tall one.” And, from what I gathered, she made a killing on the Biglaw circuit that summer.
An “us vs. them” mentality won’t get us anywhere if the goal is true gender equality at law firms. This is why the question from my mentees always bothered me. The emphasis, first and foremost, should be on being a good lawyer. If that means you end up being a good female lawyer, even better.
Stop and ask yourself what you want. Do you want to be known as being good at your job even though you’re a woman, or just good at your job, period, end of story? For me, it was obvious that I wanted what was behind door number two.
Now, get back to billing those hours. You don’t want your numbers to be lower than the boys’.