Women are now able to achieve entry and success in a number of industries and fields that were once barred to them. But whether or not they receive the same respect as their male counterparts once they are there is another question.
For female litigation attorneys, the answer is all too often a resounding no.
“I went to a plaintiffs’ firm for a deposition, and the receptionist said, ‘OK you’re going to be in the conference room. You can go in because I know you need to set up,’” Teri Drew, a partner at national law firm Hinshaw and Culbertson, told Bloomberg’s Big Law Business. “She thought I was the court reporter.”
While this may seem like a remarkable assumption, almost any female litigation lawyer will have a similar story, especially on the larger, more prominent cases.
The reason might have something to do with the gender inequity that occurs in public security cases. According to a recent study, women only represent 25.2% of the total legal professionals involved in commercial and criminal cases.
“On the smaller cases, there’s big progress, on the larger cases that I’m personally involved in, I’m in the minority,” said Carolyn P. Short, a partner with the complex litigation group portion of law firm Reed Smith, LLP.
There is an additional discrepancy between a number of women involved in lawsuits involving public entities, 39.6%, and those involving private parties, a dismal 18.5%.
As a result, even if there is a woman involved in these cases, she is often the only one, as Carrie Cohen, co-author of the study and former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, told Bloomberg’s Big Law.
“I tried at least ten cases as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and I only had one female adversary,” Cohen said, adding, “and she was teamed up with a man.”
Another contributing factor is the sudden scarcity of court cases that actually proceed to trial. Civil cases, for example, have fallen from 11.5% moving to trial in 1962 to 1% today. That means that there is far less visibility for the female attorneys who do handle litigation, as so much of it is handled in back rooms.
As a result, the public is not presented with as many opportunities of women in high powered legal positions, leaving in place outdated assumptions, like that women in the courtroom are likely court reporters.
That is not to say there is anything wrong or inferior about a court reporter or their work. In fact, court reporters undergo a rigorous training period, usually around 33.3 months, to achieve their position, often dealing with an incredible amount of competition for fewer and fewer jobs. They are able to type at speeds that are hard to classify as human, with the minimum being around 225 words per minute.
It is rather the unchallenged assumptions that remain the problem. What’s worse, female litigators hear a host of reasons for why this happens, all excusing these assumptions. But many of these female litigators are losing their patience for the status quo.
The Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Leah Ward Sears, still experiences inequity after returning to practicing law. She asks, tongue-in-cheek, “I do wonder, Jesus, do you have to become chief justice to get the same respect as a first year white guy out of law school gets automatically?”