By Alison Monahan • April 22, 2012•Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
Maybe I was hopelessly naive, but it really never occurred to me that I'd be treated differently in the legal profession because I was a woman.
I spent the several years before law school in a heavily male-dominated profession (software), and never had any issues. I'd done a previous graduate degree, same thing.
All my life, I'd been "one of the guys" and I'd never had much interest in stereotypically female pursuits such as shopping and talking on the phone. Frankly, I decided at a young age it was a better long-term plan to be smart than to be cute, so I went down the brainy path and never looked back. (I even went to a boarding school for science and math dorks!)
So, it was pretty shocking to enter law school.
My First Hint that Something Was Different
Like many soon-to-be-law students, I did some research on what I was getting into. I ordered a few books, talked to lawyer friends, and started browsing law student message boards on the Internet.
OMG. I have NEVER in my life seen such vitriolic, misogynistic hatred.
The idea that the people writing this stuff were lawyers, or law students, or soon-to-be law students was incomprehensible to me. I simply refused to believe it. Until I showed up to class, read over a few shoulders, and realized some of “these people” were actually my new classmates.
Hum…not great. But I chalked it up to a few bad apples and moved on.
I Start to Notice Who’s Talking, and Succeeding
As the semester went on, I noticed something interesting. More and more, class discussion was dominated by the guys in the class. When certain of the more vocal women spoke up – I’m not making this up – people laughed at them and, in some cases, hissed.
Even the most notorious male gunners weren’t treated this way. It was appalling.
Naturally, all but the most self-sure women just stopped talking. (A recent study from Yale Law found that women were 16% less likely to speak in class, and were significantly less likely to feel that they had mentors to ask for letters of recommendation.)
At some point, I looked at the composition of the Law Review at my school and a few others. Largely male.
Surely Things are Better in Law Firms?
Never easily dissuaded, I set off into the working world determined to put the rather unpleasantly gendered law school experience behind me. Certainly here, in this bastion of people who were fully versed in employment law, there wouldn’t be any issues. Right? Ha! As if.
The Summer Associate Booze Cruise Departs
The first thing you should understand about the summer associate experience in a large law firm is that it’s essentially a summer-long booze-filled cocktail party. These start, in some cases, before you’ve even joined the firm for the summer.
I went to one with all of my classmates who were going to be summering at the firm, and it was fine. Until this one mid-level associate started to get a little too friendly. You know the type – way too personal, a little too eager to offer the next drink, etc. I got away without offering him my contact information and thought that was it.
Until I woke up the next day to an email, saying what a great time he’d had, and telling me how very eager he was to spend more time together when I started working.
Nowhere to Hide
I wanted nothing to do with this guy, so I didn’t tell him when I was arriving (although he knew, thanks to the summer associate “welcome messages” that announced the arrival of new summers).
Things went okay for a few weeks, until one day he just happened to corner me by the elevator, which was odd given that his office was ten floors away.
“Oh, hi,” he said, “I’ve been hoping to see you.”
Suffice it say the feeling wasn’t mutual.
Let’s Do Lunch!
The other thing you need to understand about the summer associate experience is the primacy of the “summer lunch.”
This practice, which keeps a large portion of the restaurants in NYC in business all summer, involves long, leisurely lunches with groups of summer associates and lawyers at the firm. It’s pretty well expected you’ll go to lunch if invited, but it’s never one-on-one.
Eventually, after turning down numerous lunch requests from this guy, I run out of excuses, and say I’ll go if he invites a few other people from some practice group I was feigning interest in. He agrees, so I’m quite surprised when I step off the elevator at the appointed time and see him in the lobby alone.
Where’s everyone else?
Oh, they had to cancel at the last minute. It’s just the two of us.
Really? Well, where are we going? Someplace quick?
No, I got reservations at a really fancy French place. You’ll love it, it’s great.
I’ll spare you the details of lunch, other than to say that he was trying to play footsie under the table, we ran into another group from the firm (who gave me a very weird look), and he insisted on ordering a bottle of wine “for the table,” at 12:30 on a Tuesday.
Things really came to a head when he tried to kiss me in the cab on the way back.
Stop that! What are you doing?
Whatever, why are you being such a bitch?
Ah, yes. The put-upon sexual harasser’s favorite retort. Love it.
The Bottom Line
This has gotten really long, so I’ll spare you the rest of the story (and the other surprisingly similar one I was going to share from a different law firm job), but the bottom line is this:
This sort of stuff happens in the legal profession, and it happens a lot. I’m going to go out on a crazy limb, and say it happens a lot more than it does in other corporate settings.
If it happens to you, or you think it’s happening to you, you’re probably right, and it’s not your fault.
As for how to handle it, I honestly don’t know. You can laugh it off as long as you want, but the reality is that you’re still generally in a position of less power than the guy who’s doing this. So, it’s probably not going to stop.
Maybe my fellow traveler Kate McGuinness, BigLaw pioneer turned women’s rights crusader, has some ideas! Or feel free to share yours in the comments.