March 2014 Bar Bulletin
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March 2014 Bar Bulletin

Unwritten Rules: Women, Sexism and the Practice of Law

By Autumn T. Johnson


I remember the first and the last time my law school organized an earnest discussion about whether wearing a pant suit or skirt suit was more appropriate. What I don't remember is how many times it was discussed in between.

Our career services office brought up this topic regularly. I also remember being handed a list of appropriate ways for a woman to wear her hair, jewelry and makeup in an interview. I graduated from law school in 2010.

When I saw the topic for this month's Bar Bulletin, the women's studies major in me was excited. I am not one of those people who thinks Black History Month or Women's History Month is no longer necessary.

I brought up the topic of my article at a lunch with several female lawyers last week. I asked them if they thought there were unwritten rules for female attorneys. One business lawyer recounted a story in which one of her friends was routinely "not invited" to the social events at the law firm held by her male colleagues. These social events were after hours and were where everything important was discussed and decided.

Another attorney recalled that when she practiced at a large firm there were only two female attorneys and they never spoke to each other, distrustful because it was understood that only one woman could make partner. I mentioned to the group that I had once worked at a mid-size litigation firm where only four of the 20 lawyers were women, female attorneys were more likely to be made paralegals than associates, all of the support staff were female, and the relationship among the few female attorneys was hostile.

The others assumed this happened somewhere else, not here in Seattle. When I corrected them, they assumed it was a long time ago. It was in 2012. Today that firm has even fewer female attorneys.

In preparation for this article, I inquired of additional female colleagues as to whether they had ever encountered unwritten rules in the practice of law on account of their gender. One employment lawyer told me that in negotiations the male attorneys were presumed to be aggressive. She recalled several male clients who remarked to her with surprise, "You are tough." She took it as a compliment, but suspected her gender was the reason they assumed she would be otherwise.

Another female attorney told me that she thought her age and the size of her law firm were a bigger barrier to her than her gender, but she highlighted the fact that she felt this was because she practiced family law; something she characterized as more "touchy feely."

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