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Sexism continues in Wisconsin’s legal community

Patricia Epstein

Hard as it may be to imagine after all these years, female attorneys still face sexism in the legal profession.

It happens even though nearly 46 percent of law school graduates nationwide are women.

I know the realities of sexism in the profession because I’ve experienced it firsthand, as have several of my colleagues.

But it’s also important to make clear that I have had, and still have, many wonderful and inspiring male colleagues, partners and mentors who have shaped me both as a person and as an attorney. In addition, the majority of my male adversaries and colleagues always have treated me with respect, as have the majority of judges before whom I have appeared.

The fact remains, however, that just about every female litigator I talked to for this column has been asked if she is the court reporter when walking into a deposition.

This has happened to me so often that I barely notice it anymore. I would venture to guess, however, that my male colleagues never have been asked this question.

One of my colleagues said she has been handed exhibits by male attorneys who have mistaken her for the court reporter and have asked her to put exhibit stickers on the documents.

Another colleague said she recently was asked by the court reporter, in a room full of men, if she was a lawyer. The court reporter did not ask a single man in the room that question.

“I was even wearing a suit,” my colleague said.

One of my friends, a female partner at a law firm, told me that before going to law school, she accompanied her brother-in-law, a lawyer, to court and went back to the judge’s chambers. She was introduced as a “future lawyer,” to which the judge responded: “I would think twice about that. The law is no place for young ladies.”

That patronizing attitude continues today. I am defending a complex case and my male adversary, with whom I have no social relationship, has repeatedly called me “sweetie.”

He’s not much older than me, and every time he says it, I am taken aback. While I honestly doubt he has ill intent, I am never sure quite how to respond. I have tried jokingly calling him “honey” in response.

Language plays a key role in defining attitudes toward women lawyers. Gender-loaded words such as “strident,” “shrill,” “hysterical” and “sharp” have been used to describe some female lawyers’ skills.

Then, there is the dreaded “b” word. An aggressive female litigator is often referred to by others with that word. Similar advocacy skills in a man inevitably are called “tough” or “aggressive.”

I suppose society still expects women to behave in a ladylike, or submissive, fashion. But that approach does not match up with litigation.

Pregnancy, needless to say, can open a whole other can of sexist worms.

One friend told me about overhearing a male lawyer in the office saying it was too bad she was pregnant with her first child because “she would have had a brilliant career.” Three children later, she does have a brilliant career in the law and also is a fabulous mother.

Then there are incidents I would label doozies.

A former divorce lawyer recounted a situation that both shocked and embarrassed her. The woman was working on a contentious divorce trial, she said, and when it concluded, her male adversary handed her a DVD.

He said he “thought she might enjoy it,” she said. It turned out to be a triple X-rated video. She did not report him to the Office of Lawyer Regulation, in part, she said, because she was so taken aback.

I know of a firm where client lunches would, on occasion, be held at Hooters. And one male partner’s birthday was celebrated with a female stripper … on a Thursday afternoon at work.

Women, me included, are sometimes too quick to excuse such bad behavior. Perhaps we resort to our understanding and maternal natures.

Or, more likely, we want to fit in, be one of the guys, and not overreact. We don’t want to be considered overly sensitive or a troublemaker.

Many women I spoke with told me they did not want to make waves. Sadly, I think many young women also are afraid to be labeled a feminist.

I asked my 19-year-old stepdaughter if that is true, and she agreed. I think that is a sad tribute to the strong, pioneering women who paved the way for all of us.

Feminist should not be a dirty word, but rather a word women are proud of and claim and one that men do not look down upon.

Despite the understandable instinct to stay quiet and keep a low profile when these things happen, which I myself did in younger years, I urge all women lawyers and our male colleagues to speak up when this sort of thoughtless, belittling and, yes, sexist conduct occurs.

Let’s try to do better for our sons and daughters who will follow in our footsteps, and let’s all set a much better example for the generations to come.

Patricia (Cohen) Epstein is a shareholder at Bell, Moore & Richter SC. She defends medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits and defends health care professionals in credentialing and licensing matters. She also mentors young female lawyers and started a lunch group called “Lawyer Moms” for women who are working and child-rearing. She can be reached at pepstein@bmrlawyers.com.


  1. Interesting article. I wonder though if these examples are simply the actions of a few louts. Almost every lawyer I know respects women lawyers and treats them as professionals.

  2. Nick Zales: Many anecdotes were cut from this article through the editing process at WLJ and for length purposes…I had talked to many women for my informal survey and heard about a lot more head-shaking incidents. Hence, sadly, there are more than “a few louts,” although I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of male lawyers out there would never do or say these sorts of things. Thanks for your comment!

  3. when you first proposed this article, i was rather skeptical. but i’ve spent my life as a sole practitioner, not working in a firm, and not doing alot of civil litigation. being in court every day, i never noticed any sexism. but i remember talking to a young associate at a very large firm who, even though the firm had a very casual dress policy, wore suits ever day. she said the reason was that, if she didn’t, she’d be treated like a secretary rather than an attorney.

    reading the column, i don’t see any reference to being treated badly in court itself. so, the article as written pretty much jibes with my own impressions. i’m curious whether anything that was edited out did express discriminatory treatment in court.

  4. Yes, there were a few incidents edited including one where a judge asked female attorney, who had paused during an argument, “well, are you just going to stand there looking pretty or are you going to advance an argument for your client?” I, myself, have always been treated well by Wisconsin judges. I also know of a judge who refused an adjournment request because it conflicted with a pregnant litigator’s due date.

  5. I am a female public defender who has often been mistaken for clerks or secretaries. I have decided to respond to these mistakes in some way, rather than just silently grumble. A few months ago, a male attorney asked me, in the courtroom, just before court, “Are you the interpreter?” I was in a suit, of course, but that makes no difference. My response: “NO, I am not the interpreter, but I am often misstaken for her…I hear she’s HOT!” Then I signed in on the attorney list, just after the male attorney, and went about my business, totally ignoring him and greeting the other attorneys I knew. The district attorney must have liked my response because he said, “Good one, Mary!”

  6. Thank you for the article. I think it’s hard for female attorneys to speak up when we do experience this because we fear being labeled as difficult or worse. I’ve been asked to fill in for our legal assistant on days when she’s not available. I did it at first because I wanted to be helpful in a pinch. Typing, phones, coffee, dishes etc. When I later refused and said it wasn’t appropriate as a regular occurrence, I was told that an associate should do everthing she could to help a partner with a case. Doing some typing on an urgent matter, maybe. Doing his lunch dishes, no thanks.

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