Women Lawyers: Silence Isn’t Always Golden

Almost half of American law students are women, but according to the findings of the 2010 Law School Survey of Student Engagement, female law students are less likely than their male counterparts to speak up and ask questions during in-class discussions. The Survey also stated that female law students are more likely to be motivated by the fear of failing than their male classmates. It was also recently revealed that women argue only 15 percent of the cases before the Supreme Court.

In light of all of this information, one question remains: why are women silencing themselves in the study and practice of law?

Are women voluntarily opting out?

Lisa Blatt currently holds the women’s record for the most arguments before the Supreme Court. When asked about the gender gap in Supreme Court appearances, Blatt stated that while she believes women can argue as well as men, women seem less likely to enjoy “verbal jousting.” She suggested that many women might be “horrified,” and thus unable to engage in verbal combat.

Patricia Millett, another woman who has argued multiple times before the Supreme Court, was concerned that women were actively opting out of career opportunities which would allow them to argue before the Supreme Court.

Vivia Chen of The Careerist was shocked by the news of women’s reluctance to speak out, writing in her piece, The Silence of Women, that:

Women in law are not wimps. Not the ones that I know. Even in law school, they struck me as outspoken, articulate, and, not infrequently, argumentative. I don’t recall too many shrinking violets back then, and I don’t see many now.

Why, then, are these outspoken, articulate, and argumentative women’s voices not being heard? Why are women so “horrified” about speaking out?

You can hear our voices if you choose to listen

Nicole Black, former Lawyerist contributor and author of Women Lawyers—Back on Track, a blog for women attorneys, suggested that cultural norms may have something to do with it. When I asked her for more information, she pointed me to one of her prior blog posts, which noted that in our society:

[A] desirable trait for women is to be soft spoken and gentle. [F]rom a young age, [we] learn that our culture expects certain things from girls—not the least of which is playing a quietly supportive background role while the boys handle the front end of things.

Sure, as we grow and learn, we make our own decisions about how we choose to carry ourselves in the world, but the lessons learned at a young age are not easily forgotten or ignored.

Jessie Kornberg, the Executive Director of Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the success of women in law school and the legal profession, informed me that she thought women in the law are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to speaking out.

When women speak assertively, they are written off as unattractively aggressive. When women speak up in softer, more “feminine” tones, their comments don’t register with professors or peers. Study after study demonstrates that a man can repeat a woman’s argument directly after her and receive all the credit from listeners for making it. Either way you’re just not being listened to—of course women “opt-out” of that equation.

Women lawyers have to make a difficult decision

It seems like we live in a world where women lawyers who refuse to indulge gender stereotypes are labeled as “bitches,” while the women lawyers who play to gender norms are taken advantage of and considered weaker in all respects. Apparently, fear of failure is a motivating factor for women lawyers, and the disparity between how men and women are treated in the study and practice of law likely exacerbates that fear. This being the case, is there really any doubt as to why some women lawyers have been silencing themselves?

All I know is that in this damned if you do, damned if you don’t world, I’d rather be a “bitch.” Silence isn’t always golden, especially when you want to be successful. Is that the right choice? I don’t know, and only time will tell. What I do know is that I have a lot to say, and that I want to be heard—I think that I’ve earned it. We all have, but the question is whether women lawyers are willing to face adversity to reap the rewards.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcbethphoto/5337779196/)


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  • Jay Zaretsky MD FAANOS

    Excellent expose on this important topic

  • I’ve worked for and with female lawyers of various personalities, including a judge. It’s unfortunate that they get labeled in these ways, but it does happen. A lawyer must be a zealous advocate, especially as a litigator and that shouldn’t be seen negatively (unless taken to an unprofessional level).

    I’ve found Las Vegas to be very much an “old boys” club in the legal profession. Granted, that is changing ever so slowly, but it’s still an uphill battle. To echo Staci’s sentiment, ultimately you have to act with the best interest of your client in mind, the peanut gallery be damned.

  • Keith Granet

    In my business I have dealt with every type of lawyer, men, women, tough, hard, bitchy, unreasonable and sometimes even cooperative and fair. The key here is not to be “bitchy” as a choice, the key here is to be strong and to know the facts and represent them in a way that all parties understand. If you treat everyone with respect while presenting a well educated point of view then you will be preceived as fair and most likely win over your opponents. I have never minded a forceful point of view as long as it is backed up with reason and politeness. Seems simply but few realize that. Even if you think about jobs other than lawyers, I dont care what they are but any job where the person feels that this is the only power life gives them you can feel it right away and they are anything but helpful.

  • I assume the numbers are accurate, but I find the facts to be odd. Almost all of the women lawyers I know are outspoken, assertive, and certainly capable of handling themselves in a debate or in a courtroom. I have not noticed them being hesitant to speak out at all, and I would have expected the younger generation of female lawyers to be even more confident and comfortable with speaking up.

  • Just as we acknowledge that there are many different ways of learning, maybe there this is not so much about women not wanting to speak out as much as the fact that many women prefer other methods of solving problems and making their voices heard. Put me in a writing competition and I can argue with the best of them, but stick me in the courthouse with eyes on me and I am not quick on my feet. When I choose to keep quiet it is because I have assessed the situation and know that there is a better/more efficient way to make my impact and achieve my goals – and part of that plan may be to hang back behind the scenes on one project while nuturing and being aggressive on another. Perhaps some of our multitasking and necessary juggling skills as women allow us to pick and choose our battles – rather like playing a very long-term game of chess where our personal goals, family life and career choices all strategically intertwine and move up when they need to. But you are right, for our daughters’, we should be making a better effort to make our voices heard – or at least let the complex strategies and juggling acts be more visible.