By Mahira Siddiqui • March 08, 2012•Writers in Residence
Laurie Levenson is a former federal prosecutor. She was appointed assistant United States Attorney of the Criminal Section in Los Angeles where she was a trial and appellate lawyer before she attained the position of senior trial attorney and assistant division chief.
She is currently a Professor of Law at Loyola Law School and Visiting Professor at UCLA School of Law. She received her A.B. from Stanford University and her J.D. from UCLA School of Law. Her recent scholarship includes: Federal Criminal Rules Handbook (2010 ed. Thomson West); Criminal Procedure (Aspen Publishers 2008); Glannon Guide on Criminal Law (2d ed. 2009). Levenson discusses her experience with courtroom demeanor "then" and leaves female prosecutors "now" with an important message.
As a federal prosecutor, where no day is routine or predictable, what challenges did you face as a woman who began her day with “May it please the Court” and how did you overcome these challenges?
Being a federal prosecutor is one of the most exciting jobs a person can have. There are many challenges both in and out of the courtroom. In the courtroom, some people would mistake a small woman as a pushover in cases. Of course, they were quite surprised since I (and my female colleagues) were the opposite of shrinking violets. Outside of the courtroom, there were challenges as well. Things have changed, but when I was a prosecutor, there were no policies for pregnancy leave, childcare leave, etc. Accordingly, I worked until 1 ¼ hour before my first child was born and came back three weeks later, nursed him in the back of the courtroom, handed him to a FBI agent, and argued my case. Not exactly optimal working conditions.
Describe your experience in the women’s movement and the progression of courtroom demeanor with respect to gender equality.
Trial lawyers are known as being somewhat macho. Women have two choices: they can be more “macha” or they can just be really, really good. I hope that I was the latter. In my experience, women won their cases by working harder, being smarter, and not letting anything (including sexism) stand in their way. I received tremendous support from my fellow women prosecutors and even some of the older judges who saw us as their “daughters” coming up the ranks. What are some persisting obstacles women face in courtrooms today? Stereotypes of women continue to be a challenge for women in the courtroom. Sometimes, it is defense counsel, sometimes the judge, and sometimes the jurors— but everyone seems to be influenced by the images of women trial lawyers on television. Of course, those women are sexy, brassy and ethically challenged. The reality, however, is that the women in the courtroom now are just talented, hardworking folks who want to do the right thing.
What difficulties, if any, did you face from men as a female dealing with particular cases involving rape, murder and child sexual abuse?
Actually, I think that women have the advantage in rape, murder and child abuse cases. Women are often more empathetic to the victims and that plays well to the jury. Women can be sincere in explaining the horrors of the crime; men often come across as too judgmental or are tongue-tied in discussing these issues. The best women lawyers just ignore the men and try the case their own way. The men try to keep up.
As a frequent television commentator on criminal issues, such as the OJ Simpson trial, what do you believe is an important issue for female practitioners that is deserving of television commentary?
There still seems to be a glass ceiling for women in many prosecutorial offices. While we occasionally see women in high-profile cases, it often takes longer for women to reach the highest positions in their offices. As for television commentary, I really wish that commentators would focus less on what women lawyers look like and more what they can do with their cases.
From your experiences “then” what do you advise to women prosecutors “now” in dispelling preexisting notions of feminism?
“Feminism” seems to be a word out of vogue these days, primarily because the media tried to radicalize and hijack our message. I tell young women prosecutors that nobody is going to give them anything in their jobs; they have to work hard for it. They should praise all those “feminists” who went before them, suffered the overt sexism, and kept on going. This has opened the door for the current generation.