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The Legal Field is Rife with Sexual Harassment. This is My Story.

It started out innocently enough. A fellow attorney asked me to perform some contract work for him, and I agreed. I completed the work to the other attorney’s satisfaction and awaited the remaining payment due to me. A month or so passed without payment, so I suggested we have lunch. Over burritos, I brought up the subject of the outstanding payment.

“Well, for all the money I am paying you, I think you ought to throw in a blowjob.”

As my brain struggled to process his unexpected response, my hands stopped mid-bite. I responded in lawyer-mode by asking him if he had taken contract law in school. Once an agreement is made for adequate consideration (lawyer speak for the benefit that a party to an agreement gets), a party to the agreement can’t unilaterally decide to ask for more consideration. I performed legal work for him, and in exchange he paid me money. End of story.

My internal response as a female was to feel disgusted. It was hard for me to imagine that another lawyer would think it appropriate to discuss sexual favors in exchange for money, which is both legally and ethically problematic. But then again, it’s not the first time I have experienced sexual harassment in the legal field. I have had clients try to call me pet names and ask about whether I am married. In a particularly bizarre experience, opposing counsel in the first case I had post-graduation told me he “wasn’t impressed” by my credentials and was so rude to me that I cried after the call. Months later, when the matter concluded, the same attorney asked me out on a date and offered to be my mentor.

I work in a male dominated field. This year, the American Bar Association reported that women represent 34% of practicing attorneys. The ABA also cited 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics that reported male attorneys earn approximately 30% more than female attorneys. Women fill only 27.1% of federal and state judgeships. While there is never an excuse for sexual harassment, the current climate in the legal profession unfortunately makes it easier for men to engage in sexual harassment.

The difficulty for women in combatting sexual harassment is often how to react in these situations. It should go without saying that sexual harassment is never acceptable, but women often struggle with when to report it or to address the situation with the person engaging in the harassment.   In the particular instance I found myself in recently, I decided that I wanted to get paid more than I wanted to try to convince this particular scumbag attorney that his behavior was inappropriate. My silent form of protest will be to never work with him again.

In no way am I trying to say that women who experience severe and persistent sexual harassment should remain silent. Federal and state laws protect women against sexual harassment, and it is because of brave women who have spoke out against sexual harassment that we now have these legal protections. Female attorneys may choose to correct a co-worker who uses the term honey to address her, or remind a client who inquires too deeply into the attorney’s personal life that this is a professional business relationship (or remind them that you bill him for your time on the phone).

It can be disheartening for women who have spent years in school and hundreds of thousands of dollars on education to attain their dream job as an attorney and have to struggle with gender stereotypes and sexual harassment. However, each female attorney who passes the bar, practices law and makes it known that that type of behavior is unacceptable makes us that much closer to attaining equality in a sexual harassment-free workplace.

 

2014-07-18 16.16.00About the author: Kristin is an attorney and writer who lives in New York City.  She writes a blog Lawyer With Attitude (lwablog.com) and is on Twitter (@lawyerwattitude).

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5 replies

  1. thanks for sharing your story… i know it’s pretty much the initial response MANY women have, to be shocked and try to remain professional. but seriously, speak up. this CANNOT be allowed to happen.

    a guy came up behind me on a saturday night and grabbed my ass. without hesitating, i punched him in the face. i will NOT tolerate disrespect, i’ve put up with it far too long already. i won’t break noses or send people off to the morgue, but i will respond in kind. he uses his hand? i use mine. my response to this jerk of a lawyer would have been ‘wait a minute, you owe ME money, and your payment is belated at that. best get on your knees, b*tch.’

  2. What a revolting comment! I completely agree that the legal industry is a male dominated one with plenty of sexism. I work in it as well. When I first started, I was asked several times whether I was my boss’s secretary (even once by another professional who knew I had a degree!). Others always wanted to talk to my boss, or get me to check with them that my advise was correct.

    Although the partners in my first firm were good people and generally supportive, they said lots of little things, like the joke “rule” at the firm to become a partner was you had to be over 6 feet tall (all partners were, no others were) until I started (I’m six -two), so they amended the “rule” to 6 foot and male. Although I think genuinely said in jest, 15 years later there still has not been a female partner at the firm.

    Even now, when I run my own business, I still get regular sexist comments, particularly from clients. Again, I think they would be shocked to know they are being sexist, I think they are good people. But I constantly get asked whether I’m married/partnered, and when I say no, asked lots of questions about why. I have been asked by clients several times, when engaging me, what happens if I get pregnant? Which I find amusing, because they never ask what happens if I get sick or injured unexpectedly, but they are very concerned about a condition that (a) you can work through and (b) you get 9 months notice of!

    It’s a shame, but law is such an old-fashioned industry I think it’s a while before it really changes.

  3. I’m sorry that you went through that, but I’m glad that you’re bringing light to the subject. Hopefully more individuals will stand up against harassment of any kind. Change only happens when people like yourself stand up for what is right, drawing that line in the sand and standing by their principles.

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