“Miss, Are You an Attorney?” Tales of a ‘Lady Lawyer’ in the Midwest

The Bencher—January/February 2020

By Megan Stumph-Turner, Esquire

I often wonder if my fellow female Inn members experience what I call being “bar-carded”—the phenomenon in which a female attorney has her credentials to practice law questioned by others in the courtroom.

The impulse to “bar-card” women attorneys occurs across professions. Judges, lawyers, parties, and courtroom deputies alike have all been guilty of this practice. My first experience with this was when I covered a deposition during my first year of practice. When I arrived, the defendant, a slick, suited, 40-something male, grinned at me and asked, “Oh, are you the court reporter?” Before I could really think about it, I bluntly replied, “No, I am the attorney who sued you.” Since then, there have been countless instances of being asked to show my bar card or to provide assurance that I am, in fact, a licensed attorney, other than wearing a suit and sitting at counsel table.

Recently, I went to dinner with a client who was in town for a hearing the following day. Being an attorney from the East Coast, he was curious to know what it was like to be a practicing female attorney in the Midwest. At this point, I had been practicing for almost 11 years and was promoted to member status, and I told him that my gender certainly had not inhibited my opportunities for career growth at my current firm. But I did mention the practice of “bar-carding” and other half-humorous/half-annoying similar practices. He seemed stunned.

The next day, the client and I attended the hearing. While waiting for the docket to begin, I sat alongside no fewer than 10 other attorneys, all of whom happened to be male. The courtroom deputy walked over to me and asked, “Miss, are you an attorney?” I looked at my client and could not help but laugh, given our conversation the night before. “Yes,” I replied. My client chimed in, incredulously, “she’s a partner at her law firm!”

In speaking with colleagues and other local women attorneys, I know I am not alone. These types of situations are not, in and of themselves, serious issues that affect the day-to-day practice of law. However, they are symptomatic of a larger problem when it comes to women in the practice of law. That is, that despite gradual progress toward gender equality in the law, there is still much work to do. Women in the law still face challenges of being taken seriously in the courtroom, as well as when it comes to marketing on behalf of their firms. This leads to challenges in rising up the ladder to becoming majority equity members or directors of their firms. Which, of course, leads to the reported income disparity between male and female attorneys of 44 percent.

So, what can we all do in the legal community to bridge this gap? Well, we certainly need the help of not only our female, but our male, counterparts. It starts within the law firm. Senior male attorneys who bring in big business have an opportunity to get female attorneys involved in those clients’ cases. Having female insight on complex cases will lead to better strategy, as numerous studies have concluded that teams with gender diversity are far more effective at solving problems than those without gender diversity. And, after all, we lawyers are charged with being problem solvers for our clients.

Similarly, law firms are well advised to find ways to promote women to leadership roles for the same reasons. Having women in important partnership roles, as well as on executive committees, will result in more comprehensive and sound leadership.

Judges may be in a position to help as well, by paying attention to interactions between opposing counsel of different genders. Unfortunately, sometimes judges either do not notice, or choose to ignore, instances in which male attorneys attempt to bully their female counterparts with intimidation tactics, body language, and interrupting when women speak. There is no reason why a judge must tolerate such behavior in his or her courtroom.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we women must command the respect and compensation that we have earned with our hard work and dedication to the practice of law. Ask for opportunities to be put on important cases at your firm. Attend networking functions that will grow your connections for future business and leadership opportunities, and do not be afraid to be the first one in the room to strike up a conversation, even if you do stick out like a sore thumb. Do not be shy about letting your supervising attorney know how your priorities are balanced, whether they are more family-focused or all about financial opportunity. Ask yourself, would my male colleague be afraid to say this? If not, then why should I be? If you want the seat at the head of the table, then act like it. Do not be afraid to self-promote; it is not empty, vain bragging—it is marketing, and it is effective. It feels uncomfortable sometimes to share accomplishments or community involvement. But if you do not do this for yourself, then who will?

And then there are the inevitable “bar-carding” occasions. Do not let these silly encounters hold you back or ruffle your feathers. Know that this says everything about the other person’s bias or shortcomings and nothing about yours. Learn when to pick your battles, but never allow someone to be abusive toward you. Zealously represent yourself the same way you would your clients.

These anecdotes and tokens of advice are not intended to make any woman shy away from the practice of law. I love it. I am incredibly grateful for where this profession has taken me and what lies ahead. And because I’m here, I get the opportunity to be part of the movement of women attorneys taking charge in the courtroom, the conference room, and the boardroom. I hope you will join me.

Megan Stumph-Turner, Esquire, is a member at Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC, where she practices in civil defense litigation, with an emphasis in financial services and commercial litigation. She is a Barrister member of the Earl E. O’Connor American Inn of Court in Kansas City, Missouri.

© 2020 Megan Stumph-Turner, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 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.