Attorneys and the #MeToo Movement—Where Do We Go from Here?

The Bencher—May/June 2019

By Ann M. Goade, Esquire and Portia B. Scott, Esquire

The stories of women being insulted, minimized, humiliated, sexually harassed, and worse have exploded in recent years, becoming more prominent with the #MeToo movement. Certainly, the practice of law is not immune to the injustice of gender bias and discrimination. Ask any female attorney who has been in practice for more than a few months about her own experience and you will most likely hear stories that seem unbelievable in a profession that prides itself on being the Guardians of Justice.

Here is a true tale from our own trove of personal experiences: One of the authors was arguing, and winning, against a discovery objection in front of an established, reputable judge. The other attorney, as his entire argument, placed his elbow on the Bench, leaned in and said conspiratorially to the judge, “Ya know, judge, giving this little lady a law license is like giving a loaded gun to a toddler.” Aside from appreciating the rather pleasing alliteration, the attorney should have been offended, insulted, and indignant. Instead, it was all she could do to not laugh out loud. This man’s time was long gone—or so she thought.

She knew the male judge was not a fool and would ignore the sexism, the condescension, and the attempt to undermine her legal prowess with what the other attorney thought should pass for wit. Of course, the judge ruled in her favor and, with a questioning look, invited her to ask for censure of the other attorney in some way. She merely shook her head; it would do no good.

Whether received with humor, resignation, indignity, defiance, anger, or a combination of them, sexism continues to thrive in the practice of law—in the courtroom, in the office, and in our professional organizations. For women to be effective, we must avoid appearing too weak and undemanding or, as equally toxic to our clients, too “shrill.” After all, our clients’ money, livelihoods, or even at times their freedoms are at stake. Just as having Barrack Obama serve as president of the United States for two terms did not end racism in America, having three women justices on the Supreme Court of the United States has not ended our battle against sexism.

The #MeToo movement has, however, helped to open the conversations we must have about our expectations, our experiences, and our long road ahead. None of us were taught in law school to be disrespectful to other attorneys, to the court, or to our staff. That behavior would have been learned long before we entered school but perhaps reinforced during and after. One of the authors was propositioned by her law professor, telling her he would “have” her prior to graduation and, if she were willing, she would get an “A” in his class. Naturally, she took her “C.”

Thirty-five years ago, there were no rules (at least none that were followed) regarding the treatment of female attorneys. A pat on the behind, a lewd remark, and worse, these were just the day-to-day indignities that went along with the practice of law. It was no protection if a female attorney knew her case and the law and came prepared to argue it. If opposing counsel was an older man, then she was likely to be subjected to ridicule and what today would be termed sexual harassment, but what has always been boorish or even criminal. Being the only woman, or one of very few, in a firm meant in order to keep a job she had to grit her teeth, move past the behavior, and more often than not, make the coffee.

Even proving oneself did not provide cover. One of the authors, having graduated from a prestigious school with honors, was offered a job at a large, successful firm involved in some of the tobacco litigation. The description during the interview was that the lead attorney wanted a really good legal secretary and thought a new “girl attorney” would be best because on top of her law degree she could type and deal with the other new “girl attorneys” in town.

And if you happened to win your legal argument, it oftentimes could be worse for you and/or your client. The male entitlement that pervaded the practice of law was akin to trying to join a fraternity, knowing you were uninvited and unwelcome.

Fast forward 30 years and we ask, “What’s changed?” Is it that the old guard has retired? Is it that the insulting and demeaning treatment of women as the oddity in school (or the work environment) was merely the result of us actually being oddities? Is it that the old boys’ network was just so entrenched as to cultivate a culture of intolerance and entitlement? The answer is none of those, but that there is, finally, an awareness that was not there even a few years ago. That awareness is aided by the fact that women now make up more than one-half of law school graduates.

Remember that civility is not just for the courtroom: We must strive to incorporate it into all aspects of our lives. We must ask ourselves, what is the practice of law? Is it a tool we use to obtain a specific result? Perhaps it is a beast of burden upon which we load our sense of self-worth, our income, and our identity or perhaps it is a friend that has given us strength, identity, and support over the years. Is it our boss, dictating what we must do and when? Whatever it is to each of us, the practice of law is also an opportunity to improve our world.

Our colleagues today have hopefully been taught that there is no circumstance in the legal workplace in which sexual harassment is to be tolerated. This country is a changing place, and the legal profession must change and improve with it. All people deserve to be treated with respect; all of us want to be treated with civility. So, how do we get there?

Becoming part of the conversation is a huge start. We must ask each other what can be done to increase civility, dignity, and the respect we show to the world and each other. When there is an example of poor behavior, acknowledge it. By refusing to accept sexism and all the prejudices that word connotes, we rise above it and become civil.

We all have our parts to play. We all can do better. And we all should remember that each year our law schools graduate young men and women who will, in large part, be looking to their elders in determining their own future codes of conduct.

Ann M. Goade, Esquire, is an attorney licensed in Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois, and The Supreme Court of the United States whose practice primarily consists of family law mediation. Portia B. Scott, Esquire, is an elder law attorney practicing in Martin County, Florida. Goade and Scott are both members of the Justice Major B. Harding AIC in Stuart, Florida.

© 2019 Ann M. Goade, Esquire and Portia B. Scott, Esquire. This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.