Women lawyers wearing pants: part I

Posted in Ethics

Imagine being a few seconds into one of the biggest presentations of your professional life, then being told to sit down and be quiet by someone who didn’t like what you were wearing.

It happened to one lawyer, whom I’ll call Grace. She allowed me to share her story with you on the condition that I didn’t share her real name. Grace worked for a big Manhattan firm’s bankruptcy group and usually appeared in bankruptcy courtrooms in and around New York City. On one occasion, though, she had to travel to the courtroom of “an elderly federal judge” in what she calls “the Heartland.”

“I was second chair, but had been given the rare opportunity to argue a motion. When introducing myself to the judge, he interrupted me,” Grace said. “He said, ‘I don’t know what they do in New York, but here, women wear skirt suits.’ He told me to sit down and would not allow me to participate.”

You might wonder what Grace was wearing. A tie-dyed tee and shorts? A cocktail dress, maybe?

“I was wearing a conservative, tailored black pantsuit,” Grace said. “Almost ten years later, I still wear a skirt the first time I appear before a new judge, for fear of ever again feeling so powerless and so silenced.”

Grace’s story wasn’t set during the “Mad Men” era, or even the 1970s, when women associates at law firms still were treated as novelties. It happened in 2005, long after most of the woman attorneys on television had added pantsuits to their professional wardrobes.

We are all – men and women alike – judged on our appearance when we walk in the door, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that, in law, we women are scrutinized more closely than our male counterparts. In some cases, like that of the aforementioned federal judge, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether that scrutiny is fueled by an increasingly frustrated desire to keep “uppity” women, like those of us who had the audacity to become lawyers, sitting quietly in our courtroom seats while the men do the talking.

While Anita Hill certainly led the way for what we now know as legal sexual harassment in the workplace, women in law are still fighting an uphill battle for gender equality. At a Philadelphia Bar Association luncheon recently, retired Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Sandra Mazer Moss (for whom I served as a law clerk in the early 1990s) was presented with the association’s Sandra Day O’Connor Award. In her remarks, the judge cited various statistics about women in the practice of law. The most disturbing: less than 5 percent of law firm managing partners are women. She said, “The higher you climb in our profession, the fewer women you will find.”

I can’t help but wonder if the women that make up the 5 percent of managing partners wear pants.