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A popular Rudyard Kipling poem declares, "[T]he female of the species is more deadly than the male." This maxim sums up the attitude many legal assistants hold toward women lawyers. Yet, while I have known unpleasant female attorneys, they do not seem to represent any greater proportion of the legal profession than do their obnoxious male counterparts. What, then, is the basis for the cranky woman lawyer stereotype?
A friend went to work for a female attorney who had been through at least three secretaries in three years. One might have assumed the lawyer had trouble retaining staff because of her disposition, but my friend had a good relationship with her from the start. The attorney was friendly and considerate, gave generous holiday and birthday gifts, and always apologized for late evening work.
My own experience working for a female attorney was similar. The assistant who previously worked for my lawyer had disliked her intensely, and the feeling was mutual. Yet she became one of my favorite bosses.
I believe the difference between my experience with my former boss and that of her previous assistant was one of personality compatibility. The lawyer and I thought alike. Our strengths were complementary, and we had similar temperaments. We could relate to one another as friends. She saw some of her own traits mirrored in me.
Because of her positive feelings toward me, she was in a good mood in my presence. She sensed that I understood exactly what she needed done, and this gave her faith that I would not let her down.
Women attorneys can seem more difficult than males because of the different way women's brains work. A woman is wired to seek symbiotic relationships with the people around her, especially other women. Evolutionary psychology finds the origin of this tendency in prehistory, when the women of a village or clan worked together to grow or gather food, and child-rearing was a collective effort.
Men, on the other hand, tend not to conflate work and personal relationships. They cooperate to get the job done and then move on. They benefit from work friendships, but it does not trouble them deeply if such friendships do not form. But for a woman, the failure to build a warm rapport with the co-worker she depends upon most can have a chilling effect on her overall demeanor.
Those prehistoric women did more than just cheerfully cooperate to ensure the clan's survival. Their alliances bristled with conflict because they competed with one another for the available men and the best resources for their children.
Women lawyers and women legal assistants feel the tug of this ancient competitiveness. A woman lawyer's competitive streak may cause her to view her less-well-educated assistant as inferior. She might also subconsciously react to the assistant as a territorial threat.
A female assistant who feels she has fallen short of her potential might in turn be jealous of her female boss' position. Where there is no camaraderie to counteract this negativity, it can be toxic to the working relationship.
This competitive dynamic may also help explain the double standard in which a cranky male lawyer scarcely merits a remark, while a woman who behaves the same way is derided as just another nasty woman lawyer. Male bosses do not arouse the same type of resentment in female assistants because a woman's competitive drive is directed primarily at other women.
It does not help that women and men hold women to higher standards of civility. Also, women -- lawyers and assistants -- whose desire for symbiotic relationships with other women at work are thwarted may be more disappointed than they are when males in the workplace seem distant or rude.
WHAT TO DO?
The responsibility for building a sound working relationship between a woman lawyer and a woman assistant rests mainly with the assistant. The assistant must earn the lawyer's trust, and this requires a keen sensitivity to the lawyer's particular needs and apprehensions. It also calls for setting one's own ego aside and demonstrating unqualified loyalty.
But the attorney must give the assistant a chance. Understand that not every woman wants to be a lawyer, and channel competitive energies toward other attorneys instead of the assistant. Make expectations clear. Set firm, realistic priorities. Provide detailed positive and negative feedback, so the assistant can assess her own performance and learn to improve. Try to appreciate the assistant as a person.
A year after I left my job working for the woman attorney, one of my former co-workers e-mailed to say everyone at the firm wanted me back. The new assistant did her best but could not seem to please my old boss. The lawyer's resulting displeasure manifested itself as a never-ending bad mood that upset those around her. This made me sad. Both women were good people, but mismatched personalities and a lack of understanding had loosed an avalanche of misery.
Perhaps Kipling was right about the ferocity of the female bears and cobras featured in his poem. But his pronouncement need not hold true of lawyers. The legal profession should accept that it can be more difficult to match an assistant to a female lawyer than to a male lawyer. It may be that some lawyers would do best with an assistant of the opposite sex, so as to obviate same-sex competition. I knew one male secretary who worked happily with a female lawyer whose two previous female assistants had disliked her. But until there are enough male assistants to support the growing numbers of female attorneys, we women simply will have to work on developing mutual respect and trust. We can do it: We are, after all, the fairer sex.
The Assistant-at-Law has worked for law firms large and small, in various capacities, for more than 15 years. Currently, she is a legal secretary for a Texas-based international firm.