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Sexism continues in Wisconsin’s legal community

By: Patricia Epstein//September 29, 2011//

Sexism continues in Wisconsin’s legal community

By: Patricia Epstein//September 29, 2011//

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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.

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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 [email protected].


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