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WER Winter 2017 Feature 5
Volume LXIV, Issue III

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"Stepping Forward (Not Back): Ensuring Progress for Women Attorneys"


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Not There Yet: Sexism Facing Young Female Attorneys in the Legal Profession Today

By: Emma R. Denny

Emma R. Denny is an Associate Attorney at Fabian May & Anderson, PLLP representing exclusively employees in employment litigation matters. She is an alumna of the University of Minnesota Law School.

Emma R. Denny

Based on my observations and anecdotal evidence from my fellow young female attorneys, I see these wide-scale trends playing out on an individual basis. I have experienced sexism from my older, male opposing counsel on numerous occasions, including being asked how old I am or when I graduated from law school on the record at depositions. I have also been completely ignored by male opposing counsel for almost the entirety of a case, even when I am the primary contact on the file. Well into the litigation, and they still won’t shake my hand at depositions or meetings, or even say hello, and continue to communicate solely with my male partner for all issues on the case. I have to say, though, I do get some enjoyment out of the looks on their faces when I show up to the deposition, sans male chaperone, or I argue the motion in court.Though many strides have been made since the early days of women practicing law, when sexism was often far more egregious and blatant than it is today, there is still quite a ways to go until true equality is reached. Even in 2016, though women make up nearly half of law school graduates, they constitute only 36% of practicing attorneys, 33% of federal judges, and 18% of equity partners at private law firms.[1]

Perhaps the most egregious example was when a male opposing counsel responded to my relatively routine email about service of a subpoena by telling me that he “didn’t like my tone.” His language was strongly reminiscent of the paternalistic phrase “I don’t like your tone, young lady.” What was I supposed to do, write “If you don’t mind, I’d like to serve the subpoena on Friday, please let me know if that works for you! [insert smiley face emoji]”? While I always communicate professionally, it’s my job to effectively represent my client, not to conform to gendered expectations of how my tone should sound in emails, or to protect delicate sensibilities. Luckily, we had a hearing the next week on a motion, to which I wore my hot pink power suit, and won. After he had received a thorough dressing-down from the judge regarding the quality of his submission to the Court, I, showing admirable self-restraint, did not say what I wanted to, which was: “How do you like my tone now?” He probably would have turned as pink as my suit. To be clear, not all male opposing counsel engage in this kind of behavior – but it happens too frequently for me to dismiss.

What has also been interesting to me is that on the few occasions when I’ve worked on cases with another female attorney, but with no male attorney on the case, I’ve experienced a marked uptick in sexist behavior from male opposing counsel. When there were only female attorneys on the case, male opposing counsel seemed more predisposed to find our settlement positions, legal arguments, and clients’ cases as “ridiculous” or “outrageous” – when in similar cases I worked with a male partner, those same positions or arguments were seen as “tough.” I have also had male opposing counsel run to the judge to resolve disputes more frequently when I was working with another woman; whereas in similar situations with a male partner, the dispute would have been worked out between counsel. It is irritating to say the least to have male opposing counsel dismiss your client’s case, arguments, and positions out of hand simply because you are a woman – resulting in their inaccurate analysis of the risks involved to their client, ultimately doing their client a disservice.

While the sexism I have experienced as a lawyer has come mostly from opposing counsel,  many female colleagues in my age group have experienced sexism from other attorneys within their firms. The most common complaint I hear is the lack of mentoring from male partners. The male partners often invite the male associates to happy hours, sporting events, and the like, but neglect to invite the female associates. One friend was explicitly told by a male partner that he invited male associates to happy hours and other events frequently, but didn’t do the same with young female associates because he didn’t want anyone to get the impression that they were having an affair. He didn’t seem to think of this as sexism per se – after all, he’s only protecting their respective reputations! However, this statement reveals that he is refusing to mentor young female attorneys solely on the basis of their gender. There is no other way to describe this behavior than as sexism, pure and simple. And this is not an isolated incident – it is an attitude widely held, if not usually so openly admitted, among male attorneys. This attitude is not without consequences – these mentor relationships with partners are often the best and/or only way to become a partner oneself and build a book of business. This lack of mentoring from male partners (who make up over 80% of partners in the legal practice overall) is severely hampering young female attorneys’ ability to become partners themselves.

Of course, sexism doesn’t only come from male attorneys. It also comes from older female attorneys (and judges), who are oftentimes more harsh and critical towards female attorneys than towards males. The most common reason for this discrepancy in treatment seems to be the “school of hard knocks” mentality. In other words, “I had it rough coming up as a young female attorney back in the day, so I’m going to be harder on you than the male attorneys so you can ‘toughen up’ like I had to.” The logic seems to be that by “toughening up” young female attorneys, they are doing them a favor. In actuality, however , this mindset perpetuates the very sexism these women experienced during their careers and further discourage young women from the practice of law.

In short, while we as a profession have made strides, there are still many miles to go before true equality is reached. I would encourage male and female attorneys and judges to closely examine their biases, both conscious and subconscious, so that we can continue the progress that has been made for women in the legal profession well into the future. Provide mentorship to the young female attorneys at your firm, don’t be harder on them because they are women, don’t be dismissive or paternalistic towards them, and don’t underestimate them. Let’s treat each other with respect and, most importantly, as equals.

1. "A Current Glance at Women in the Law", American Bar Association (May 2016) 


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