Women and the Law

It was my privilege recently to give an ethics presentation to the Upstate Chapter of the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association.  The mission of SCWLA is “to enhance the status, influence and effectiveness of women lawyers in the State of South Carolina.  SCWLA will, through advocacy, action and association, take positive steps to ensure that women lawyers achieve their fair share of opportunities and benefits available to those in the legal profession.”  The SCWLA has over 700 members and emphasizes the opportunity to meet and help other women by sponsoring CLE seminars, monthly regional lunches, and mentoring programs. It’s a great group.

Later, after making my presentation, I noticed an old book on myshelf, The Official Lawyer’s Handbook, by D. Robert White, Esq., published in 1983 by Wallaby Books.  It was given to me by a friend while I was in law school shortly before I graduated in 1987.  Some of the chapter titles provide a clue to the author’s attitude and approach to the legal profession.  They include “Summer Clerkships: Summer Camp for the Incurably Overachieving,” “Once You’re a Partner: The Crock at the End of the Rainbow,” “Legal Ethics – And Other Great Oxymorons.” One chapter begins with a cartoon in which an older male lawyer shakes hands with a young female lawyer.  The caption: “So you went to law school and now you want to practice law . . . I think that’s cute.”

Um, yikes.

While reviewing the remaining section titles, I noticed that there was a chapter on “Women and The Law (You Don’t Have to Wear Briefs to Write Them).”  Since I had just left a meeting of the SCWLA, I thought it was a good idea to read that chapter.  I suspect that the author’s attitude was considered condescending even then. It is probably best to remember that this book was published in 1983, at a time when women made up only about a third of the total law school population, but that’s no excuse. However, despite his cavalier attitude, the author anticipated that views of women in the profession would change over time.  As he ultimately noted: “When women become rainmakers, their success is assured.  At that point, the only question is whether women will start talking dirty and popping each other with rolled-up towels.”

The chapter concludes with this commentary:

“How is a Woman to Cope?”

In any law firm with partners old enough to have gray hair (or no hair), a woman will encounter “traditional” attitudes.  There are three alternative strategies she can adopt in response.

1. The Crusader.  This bold approach involves pointing out every indiscretion and protesting every inequity, no matter how minor the offense or how senior the offending partner.  “You get out of the elevator first, hair-bag!”  It’s a noble battle, but exhausting and potentially fatal to one’s career.  Make sure you know what you’re getting into.

2. The Mata Hari.  A few women, motivated by contempt or frustration, attempt to exploit those feminine resources that male partners appear most willing to recognize and reward.  You can spot a hard-core Mata Hari by her black mesh stockings with seams.

3. The Survivor.  This pragmatic approach consists of equal parts diplomacy, competence, thick skin, and a strong sense of humor.  “Sure, I’ll get you some coffee, Mr. Turk – if you’ll pick up some pantyhose for me when you go out to lunch.”  It includes traces of Katharine Hepburn-like insouciance and Margaret Mead-like tolerance of Neanderthals.

This approach may involve a few concessions to circumstance.  But these concessions are purely cosmetic.  In legal jargon, they are procedural rather than substantive.  You should not feel your core values threatened in situations that require you to endure a conversation about sports, or to resist running around the room with an air freshener when someone lights up a cigar.

Reading this chapter reminds me that we have come a long way in this area, and many others.