Women often come into my office confused about the legal process and feeling like they have not been treated fairly by the legal system. My clients have told me stories ranging from frustration with how their former lawyer (a man) did not listen to what was important to them in a case, to how they felt a judge did not take them seriously. Why do my female clients feel that they are not being heard? Why are they so surprised by outcomes in the courtroom? And what are some things that women can do to make their point more persuasively, both inside and outside the courtroom?
Historically, the legal profession has been male-dominated and, as such, the policies, procedures and idiosyncrasies governing this nation’s legal system were created by men rather than women. While there are more women entering law school now, the gender divide still remains in certain areas of the law and in certain areas of the country. I do trial work in Southwest Virginia, focusing on criminal and family law. The other lawyers who practice the type of law I do in this area are overwhelmingly male. So are most of the local judges.
Nationally, many of the judges still are overwhelmingly male. According to the National Women’s Law Center, President Obama has appointed 131 female judges, more than any other U.S. president to date; however, they are still outnumbered by male colleagues. Since the Supreme Court’s inception, only 4 of the 112 justices to occupy this position have been women. Only 60 of the 170 active judges serving on the Federal Court of Appeals are women, which translates to just 35%.
Therefore, when my female clients start looking for a lawyer or go into a courtroom, they are much more likely to encounter a man than a woman. Men do not necessarily understand experiences unique to women. Male lawyers and judges most likely have not had the experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. They have not had to juggle childcare burdens while being a single mother, and they probably cannot relate to domestic violence or spot the signs of battered woman’s syndrome.
A good lawyer can help her female clients understand that these men may want to help, but just do not intuitively understand these issues. It is also the lawyer’s job to bring these issues to the attention of the judge hearing the case, and to take the time to explain how these struggles have shaped her client and influenced her decisions.
Feeling Comfortable with Confrontation
Our legal system is adversarial by nature, especially trial work. When a divorce, custody dispute or criminal charge is filed, sides face off on opposite sides of a case and battle it out until a judge makes a ruling. Female clients are often unprepared for this level of confrontation
While men are traditionally taught to thrive on such disputes, women have been socialized to act as mediators or “people pleasers”, thus creating an aversion to conflict. Women often take confrontation personally and wonder if their words or actions might cause offense. Women are socialized to read other people’s moods, and apologize when they think someone may be unhappy with them. This conditioning from a young age discourages women from asserting their opinions, questioning others’ views and defending their rights. On the other hand, boys grow up wrestling with friends, playing contact sports and wearing a “troublemaker” reputation as a badge of honor. Men rarely take confrontation personally, and male trial lawyers especially enjoy the adrenaline rush of confrontation.
Some of my female clients have urged me to negotiate compromise early in the proceeding, and then are baffled when the other side does not accept what they perceive as reasonable offers. However, men can often see a reasonable offer as a sign of weakness, indicating that the other side is about to give in or does not want to go trial. This can make a male lawyer think that this is the opportunity to win, much like a shark that smells blood in the water. This is not to say that some cases cannot be settled reasonably outside of the courtroom, but my female clients need to be prepared to go to court and fight for what they deserve, rather than backing down for fear of causing offense.
Learning how to be assertive can be difficult for my clients. My clients come to me when they’ve been charged with a crime, when they are heartbroken and going through a divorce, or when they may be in danger of losing their children. A good lawyer will help her client see that there is light at the end of the tunnel; that circumstances will not always be this bad. I also take time to explain to my clients that giving in now, although it may seem like the easy way out, can have a lasting impact on their financial and emotional well-being, and in the long run is not the best option.
How Appearance Can Play a Role
How a client looks in the courtroom is important for both men and women, but I have found that my female clients are often not aware how the choices they make about clothes, hair and makeup affect how judges view them.
I have seen clients come into my office after obviously taking care to pick out their clothing and putting great effort into their hair and makeup, but have overlooked the fact that when they sit down their skirt rides up much too high, or that their heels cause them to have an unsteady gait. Tottering in heels that are too high can make a woman appear frail, unsure of herself or lacking in confidence. This in turn affects how a judge views a woman’s credibility on the witness stand.
Appearance is especially important in divorce and custody cases when questions of infidelity arise. Opposing counsel and judges, even if only subconsciously, notice if the woman is wearing tight or revealing clothing. Even button-down shirts and pencil skirts can show too much cleavage or ride up too high on a woman’s legs if these items are not carefully tried on ahead of time. Women may wear cute, flirtatious or even form-hugging clothing for a number of reasons. It may give her confidence or make her feel attractive on her big day in court. But men tend to think that a woman who is wearing suggestive clothing is trying to attract the attention of men. This is turn may lead a judge to think that the woman may be introducing her children to new men or going on dates before her divorce is even final. This is not the message I want my clients to be sending in court.
This is not a fair standard. According to The Atlantic, men take an average time of about 30 minutes to get ready for the day, while many women spend more time than that each morning putting on makeup. In a perfect world, a woman’s appearance would not matter. I am not suggesting that the legal field is filled with men checking out every woman that they come into contact with, but my female clients should know that how they dress in court may distract or even hurt their case. A good lawyer will ask her clients to come to her office before the day of court dressed as they would for court so that they can talk about ways of making her appearance more professional. Depending on the case, I urge my clients to find an outfit they might wear to church or to an office.
Communication Style Matters Too
Studies shown in an article published in The Atlantic state that both men and women with lower pitched voices are viewed as more authoritative. Some women have naturally higher pitched voices, but some women raise their voices when they are unsure or seeking reassurance. A very high voice is often perceived as annoying, grating or distracting, especially by men.
Some of my female clients speak softly, or even pause as they are talking, as if they are waiting for positive feedback from the listener that it is okay to continue. Men often do not understand the desire for positive listener feedback and instead interpret these voice patterns as a lack of confidence or that what the woman is saying is not the truth. When women start speaking in this manner, opposing counsel often begins pushing them around and judges often begin tuning out the message.
Some of my female clients end their sentences by raising their voices, making their statements sound more like questions than confident assertions. Again, men often view this “uptalk” as a lack of sincerity or uncertainty about what is being said.
Delivering testimony with self-assurance is essential. A good lawyer will coach her clients to speak clearly, deliberately, persuasively and succinctly. This can take practice, and one or two sessions in the office running through testimony prior to court can be time well spent.
You generally only get one chance to make a favorable impression on a judge. My female clients are often not aware of how subtle choices can affect how men perceive their credibility, especially in the legal world. A good lawyer will seek to educate her female clients and encourage them to find ways to have their stories heard, understood and believed.