Ask a woman in litigation if she’s ever been mistaken for a court reporter, and there’s a good chance she’ll say yes.
Teri Drew, who specializes in the defense of commercial liability claims, said it happened to her just a few months ago.
“I went to a plaintiffs’ firm for a deposition, and the receptionist said, ‘OK you’re going to be in the conference room. You can go in because I know you need to set up.’” Drew recounted to Big Law Business.
“I said, ‘Set up? I’m pretty much good to go.’ And she said, ‘You have to set up your equipment.’ And I said, ‘I don’t have equipment.’ She said, ‘Oh, do you do shorthand?’”
“She thought I was the court reporter,” explained Drew, a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson. Drew estimated that she’s the only woman lawyer in 75 to 80 percent of the cases she handles.
Drew considers herself lucky that her law firm afforded her many opportunities to argue motions and take the lead on cases after she joined in 1987, but she said she knows that’s the exception.
“I do sometimes feel sorry for some of the women attorneys in the larger firms,” said Drew. “You know they know the case better, but when we’re having the motion for summary judgment in a products liability case, they’re sitting there and they’re passing the notes.”
That’s exactly what Judge Shira Scheindlin observed during her more than 20 years on the New York’s Southern District. Scheindlin recently spearheaded a New York State bar association survey of the state’s courts and found that women are nearly twice as likely to represent parties in the public sector than private litigants. Across New York State, she found that women make up on average 25.2 percent of court appearances in commercial and criminal cases.
In light of the findings, Big Law Business spoke with female litigators and judges to find out what experiences lie behind the numbers.
Carolyn P. Short, a partner in Reed Smith’s complex litigation group, began her career as a federal public defender, where she often litigated alongside other women. Since joining the firm in 1989, her practice has gradually shifted to an almost exclusive focus on complex commercial cases.
“On the smaller cases, there’s big progress, on the larger cases that I’m personally involved in, I’m in the minority,” said Short.
Retired New York Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman
said she faced disparate treatment as a judge. In her early years on the bench, she said, many male lawyers addressed her in a patronizing tone. It was only after she aged that she was afforded full respect by the attorneys arguing before her, according to the judge.
Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, said people often assumed that her husband was the judge when they traveled together. Today, she said she is treated differently than other retired justices who are men.
“At least down south, when you retire, you maintain the word judge or justice,” said Sears, now a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell in Atlanta. “Judge Griffin Bell was always Judge Griffin Bell, even when he’s at King and Spalding.”
“When people encounter me, they don’t know what to say,” she said. “I’ve been in groups of all retired judges, and it’s Judge this, and Judge that, and then, Leah.”
The justice said she believes women lawyers have to “hit a home run all the time” to be treated equally. “I do wonder, Jesus, do you have to become chief justice to get the same respect as a first year white guy out of law school gets automatically?” she said.
In her bar association report, Judge Scheindlin said clients and judges have power to help level the playing field for women litigators. Clients can ask that the firms representing them put women in more prominent roles, and judges can make it clear to parties arguing before them that they’d like to hear from younger attorneys, who are more likely to be women.
Carolyn Short, the Reed Smith partner, said she’s had mixed experiences with judges. “I’ve had judges say, come back to chambers and kiss me in chambers,” she said.
“I’ve gone to jurisdictions where I am the lead name on the pleading and the judge in the court will recognize the first male name on the pleading,” said Short. She estimated that this happens in about a quarter of the cases she tries outside of her home jurisdictions.
On the other hand, Short said, “I have been at the end where a client has picked me because a judge has said that they want to see women litigators.”
Drew, the Hinshaw partner, said judges sometimes afford “a little extra credence” to female lawyers. “They understand that for you to be taking the lead in a significant case, they know you’ve earned your stripes,” she said.
The women who spoke with Big Law Business all said that courtrooms have become more hospitable to women since they began practicing law, though some remained frustrated by the slow pace of change.
Diane Magram, a partner at Margolis Edelstein, said when she returned from maternity leave ten years ago, “nobody cared that I was nursing.” Today, Magram said she believes judges are far more accommodating to all parents trying to juggle child care with their court obligations.
But she said she still encounters small, daily slights in the New Jersey courtrooms where she litigates. For example, male lawyers comment regularly on her appearance, and judges address her by first name while addressing the men in the room with “Mr.” and their last names, she said.
On the days they spoke to Big Law Business, Magram and Carolyn Short both said they were litigating cases in which they were the only women lead lawyers.
“As a female litigator, when you go to a deposition, you will be asked if you’re the court reporter or they will look at you and say, when you come in, ‘You can set up in there,’” said Magram.
“When I was younger, my husband used to say to me, ‘It’s because you’re young and court reporters are all young,’” she added. “It still happens, and I’m 52.”
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