What No One Tells You Before You Go to Law School: You’re Entering a Sexist Profession

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.

Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and the co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. Stay tuned for her monthly Ms. JD column debunking myths about the legal profession.


Kate McGuinness

Unfortunately, Alison has nailed it! Sexual harassment is all too common  in law firms. 
I have a few suggestions if it happens to you. In this blog, I weigh the pros and cons of reporting the situation to HR.
Here’s another blog  listing 12 action steps you can take.
Even if you’re not sure you want to complain, make contemporaneus notes about each incident. Send a copy of the notes to your pesonal email account. If anyone else witnesses the harassment, ask him or her to write it up, too.
Here’s an additional step tailored to law firms. Send the notes along with a cover memo demanding the harasser cease and desist to the harasser. The memo should also inform him that the consequence of his continuing harassment will be your reporting it to HR and the partner in charge of employee relations at the firm.  
While male lawyers can be pigs, they’re not stupid. That should be enough to cool his jets without your incurring the collateral damage of being known as a “rat” inside the firm.
Like Allison, I’ve worked in other settings and never seen the blatant harassment that goes on in law firms. I suspect it comes out of a sense of entitlement (they’re so brilliant) and arrogance (because they’re so brilliant they can defeat any claim you might assert.)
It’s a sad fact of life women law students and lawyers must deal with.
If you’re interested in open “warfare” over sexual harassment and discrimination at Big Law, check out my legal thriller Terminal Ambition. A female partner wants  justice for the women in her firm. The chairman wants to become Attorney General. Only one of them can win.


When I wrote this, I hadn’t yet gotten a copy of Kate’s book, Terminal Ambition. Now that I have, I strongly suggest you read it! If you haven’t ever worked in a law firm, you’ll probably find it really far-fetched, but - I have to say - I recognized pretty much every character. It’s crazy how common this stuff is…


I work in an AMLAW50 law firm and haven’t experienced anything of the sort.  We do no service to women lawyers and future lawyers if we cast the entire profession as sexist. 
Some advice:
1—find a place where the people are decent and the support of women is central to the office’s priorities.  Law firms have “cultures,” as strange as that sounds.  Not every law firm is the same and you need to find a firm that doesn’t breed this sort of behavior.
2—consider getting out of NYC, Chicago, SF and LA.  You can work in a smaller market, make the same amount of money, enjoy a lower cost of living and escape some of the caged animal behavior that plagues big city law offices.  Also, consider moving West.  Lawyers on the East coast work much later at night, as a general rule, and people have a tendancy to think that the standards of professional conduct are relaxed after the sun goes down.
3—evaluate the signals that you are intentionally or unintentionally sending.  I don’t want to get into the “how to dress” discussion but consider things like your physical appearance, your attire, your body language, your giggle, the volume of perfume you wear etc.  Be/project the type of woman that men would never make unwanted advances to.
4—never blur the lines between personal and professional.  Don’t date your co-workers. ever.


I think it is maybe less about entitlement and arrogance and more about the shear lack of social lives that many firm lawyers have.


I don’t think it is fair to say that law is a sexist profession or that all law firms are sexist because one guy happened to hit on you.   If you are an attractive woman (or man), people are going to hit on you, regardless of whether you are an attorney or are an engineer, doctor, secretary, accountant, etc.  Was what he did appropriate?  Probably not.  But that does not mean that every male attorney is like that or that all law firms are full of these types of characters.
As for how to handle it, you should have just told him that he was being inappropriate and walked away from him.  You should never give someone your contact information if you feel that they are harassing you or being inappropriate.  Nor should you go out to lunch with the person.  It sends the wrong message and only escalates things further.  If you feel that someone is sexually harrassing you, then you need to take steps to stop that person and if the person still doesn’t stop, then you should report it to someone you feel comfortable talking to, like a female supervisor. 
Anyway, I am sorry you had some bad experiences, but not every job, legal or otherwise, is like that.


I actually think that’s a huge part of the whole issue. When people don’t have time for an outside social life, they naturally look where they spend all of their time—the office. The problems arise because of all of these inherent power imbalances, which make even “consensual” relationships rather ambiguous.


This article does a great service to warn younger women, especially if attractive.  It does not happen to all women, but your looks make a difference.  I worked at an AM50 and this looks familiar. 
The big disservice would be to NOT warn them. 
Thank you.

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