‘Women Lawyers’. I really hate that term.
I mean, what does it mean anyway? Real lawyers are men? You never hear someone say ‘Men Lawyers’. I just don’t get it, and never have.
No, I’m not some perfect sensitive male, eager to garner favor with the “fairer sex” (another strange phrase). I’m as bad as the next guy. I admit it. When I am fast forwarding through a Seahawks game I might find myself hitting “Play” when the Sea Gals suddenly come on the screen. I don’t fast forward through Victoria’s Secret commercials if I can get away with it (ie. when my wife is looking the other way.) I’m a pig. Just like the rest of us “men lawyers”.
But if someone were to tell me that that Sea Gal being blown up all over the screen is a second year law student, just doing this job so she can add it to her resume, I’m never gonna think that means she won’t be a great lawyer one day. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in my fair share of courtroom battles against women who could wipe the floor with most of the “men lawyers” out there. Again, what difference does it make?
But maybe it does make a difference. My wife, and law partner, is a good example. She is one of the most tenacious, aggressive, competent and highly skilled lawyers I have ever met. Thank goodness I have never had to go up against her in a courtroom. A little conflict of interest can go a long way towards preserving a marriage. Although... one of her favorite movies is Adam’s Rib, the one where Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn go at it as a married lawyer couple… and wind up getting divorced. It gives me the heebie-jeebies every time she wants to watch it. Again. Maybe she is trying to tell me something? I suppose after thirty years of putting up with me I shouldn’t worry too much. However, I know that if we were ever to do battle in court, heaven forbid, she would be a more than worthy adversary.
That said, I also know she approaches her cases differently than I do. Even though she could kick my butt in trial, that is not her default position. No. She prefers to take a more holistic, human approach as a rule; at least at first. When the time comes and the gloves come off – look out. Still, she is smart enough to know that it makes sense to try to avoid that stuff. As she likes to say, “What exactly is the problem? Why can’t you just pick up the phone and try to work things out before you go nuts and make everyone miserable?” She may have a point. Good lawyering means getting to “yes”, which does not always mean you have to beat yourself up (and everyone else) just to get your way. Sometimes my way or the highway works better if it’s our way.
I recently read an article about how this works in Congress. For once, the piece was not about the same old monotonous grind of partisan politics. Well, at least not about how that grinds everything to a halt. Instead, it was about how the human approach in the other Washington can lead to good things happening.
It seems that Patty Murray, our esteemed Senator from the real Washington had managed to bridge the gap between right and left. How? Well, at the risk of being sexist, let’s just say she used one of the oldest “man tricks” in the book—talking football. I grew up as a Green Bay Packers fan, before moving to Seattle and discovering the thrill of sitting in the King Dome on Sundays and worshiping the second most disappointing team in professional sports (after the Cubbies). So the fact that Murray played the Green Bay/Seahawks card in order to establish some common ground with her colleague on the other side, Paul Ryan, struck a very personal chord with me.
But Murray did more than win over Ryan as a personal texting buddy. She also made a point of working collaboratively with the other women in the building, regardless of their political views. Amazingly for that Washington, she even built a coalition that removed the normal backstabbing and sabotage games her male counterparts were playing every day. Instead she got together with her friends and political foes alike, and talked about mutual interests – finding common ground upon which she could build some real positive change (for a change.)
For my part, I was fortunate. I was raised in a household full of strong women, my mom and two older sisters; they were all extremely intelligent and accomplished people. Although my mom was a traditional Mid-Western housewife, she was no slouch. She read like a fiend, lectured about World Religions at her Methodist Women’s Club luncheons, and could write like a pro.
Unfortunately, when she told her high school English teacher that she wanted to be a writer, he just laughed and told her women can’t do that. Instead, he steered her into secretarial school, where she learned a trade that required her to be subservient to less competent male bosses. Who could blame her for choosing to opt out and stay at home to raise us kids, where she was free to read to her heart’s content and basically absorb half the content of printed subject matter in the Western World? When she died they put a memorial outside our town library in her honor.
My sisters were no less formidable in the brains department, one with a PhD and the other forging the way to place Down’s Syndrome babies into standard school settings decades before it was considered sane to even attempt that, something that is now almost taken for granted.
So when I arrived at Stanford Law School in 1978, I actually had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about when I was told that our class had the highest percentage of female law students in the history of legal education in America, thirty percent. I remember thinking, “Is that all? Where are the missing twenty percent?” Again, it wasn’t that I was some kind of sensitive male prodigy. It’s just that it seemed completely normal to me to be surrounded by accomplished talented women. And fun.
It wasn’t just fun because I liked girls, but there was that. After all, I did find a nice 1L to share my First Year misery with. But when that same woman became the first ever Editor of the Stanford International Law Journal, male OR female, nothing about it seemed odd. She was smart.
We have come a long way in this area over the span of my career. But we still have a long way to go. My wife tells the story about how, back in the early 80’s, she was applying for a job with the Washington Supreme Court. The idiot Justice, who shall remain nameless only because he is now dead, thought it would be hilarious to comment that her name reminded him of the stage name for a stripper. I think the exact quote was, “What are you? Some kind of a go-go dancer?” when introduced to her during her interview. I still feel like slapping that a-hole.
But that’s because I am a man. Mindless aggression comes naturally to me; I can’t help it. Watching football makes me want to knock over fans from the other team, not make friends with them. But what good would that do (other than land me in jail and get me disbarred?)
When I hear my law partner wife talking to her clients I am always intrigued. When I do it, I still maintain a certain distance with my clients. When she does it, she actually seems to bond with them on a very personal level. For real. Because, after all, she is a woman. The people who have kids and take care of them and protect them from the big bad world, which is what she does with her clients. She nurtures them through their cases.
I am more apt to tell them that we can go into court and kick the prosecutor’s you know what. And, seriously, what good does that do? It doesn’t exactly calm them down and help them find their “happy place”. But ever since I was running around the playground with a bunch of screaming boys hanging off of me playing my favorite game, kill the man with the ball, that has been my natural inclination.
Which is why we need to celebrate the difference. Because, like it or not, there is one. Fact is, the women are smarter. Which brings me back to ‘women lawyers’. Perhaps we should embrace that term the way we need to embrace the differences between us. Maybe we should make it a badge of honor, a symbol that the lawyer you are about to go up against in court is capable of laying you flat, intellectually speaking.
I’ve learned over the years. I’ve mellowed. I think my wife has had a lot to do with that. She has taught me to be a better lawyer. More attuned to people’s feelings. More flexible when that might help my clients. Less likely to go to war just because it’s fun. More collaborative perhaps, although just saying that makes me cringe a little bit.
I guess I’ve still got a long way to go.