Female attorneys are speaking out against discrimination in their field. Most have been found to be mistaken for court reporters or seen as “too young” to be a lawyer.
For example former Circuit Court Judge Sarah Zabel, now owner of MAZE Resolutions, was on the bench when one male counsel questioned her authority and knowledge.
“I had a case that was a commercial construction case which was a bench trial that ran long, and everyone associated with the case were all male. I was the only female in the room, and so the first thing one of the lawyers said to me was, ‘I’m sorry, your honor, but we’re going to have to teach you all about construction.’ I then thought to myself ‘Would they say this to a male judge?’ ” Zabel said.
“What female lawyers bring to the table, male lawyers should also bring. I feel it’s making sure they are properly representing their client and also being civil, professional and courteous,” Zabel said. “Both male and female attorneys need to make sure they are playing fair, and presenting themselves in a respectful manner when representing their client. I understand there are strategies in which attorneys represent their client, but strategy versus professionalism goes a long way.”
As far as bringing diversity of women to the bench, Zabel said Dade County for the judiciary has really grown.
“I believe we can still do a better job throughout the state of Florida, respectfully. But they have done a great job with putting women on the bench,” Zabel said.
‘Argumentative and Unprofessional’
But some women in law still see room for growth.
One attorney tweeted, “It finally happened. OC called me argumentative and unprofessional, for calling him out for improper conduit during a deposition. Being a woman in law is FUN.”
The attorney explained at one of her depositions that the opposing counsel was using a transcript of her client’s previous deposition.
“I was defending the deposition on behalf of my client. It appeared at the deposition that the attorney on the other side was using a transcript of my client’s previous deposition. However, my client had not had the opportunity to exercise her right to read the deposition, nor had we been provided with a copy of the transcript. So, I asked him whether he intended to reference a copy of my client’s previous deposition in the deposition that day. He looked at me confused and asked what I meant,” she said.
“I then asked again whether he intended to use the deposition transcript. Instead of answering me, he said, ‘I don’t understand the question. I don’t know why you’re asking that.’ So, I explained that I was concerned, based on my previous experiences in deposition with this attorney, that he might be referencing a transcript without providing a copy for my reference. I further stated that if he would be referencing documents during the deposition, we were entitled to have access to those documents. Still, he refused to answer my question or turn over the transcript. So, I stated that if he was going to use the transcript and not provide a copy, I would terminate the deposition and move for a protective order to prevent the harassment of my client. It was at this time that he began screaming over me and accused me of being unprofessional and not understanding how discovery works. I believe he was upset that I had framed the discovery as harassing. I am rather certain this would not have happened if I were a man, because I have seen this attorney interact with male attorneys at depositions and he has always been respectful and conscientious toward them.”
‘Demanded to See Bar Card’
Miami CORPlaw partner and shareholder Kristen Corpion said she was once questioned, and asked if she really were an attorney during her first deposition.
“I was conducting depositions within my first couple years by myself, and as an intimidation tactic, opposing counsel refused to believe I was the attorney of record. Claiming there is ‘no way you are the lawyer. You are too young’. They demanded to see my bar card before we began the deposition,” Corpion said. “I knew about intimidation tactics, but that was my first time experiencing one. Perhaps opposing counsel would have done the same to any young lawyer, but I highly doubt that would happen to a young man.”
Before Corpion entered the profession officially, she would attend pre-law mixers, with her now-husband.
“The other attendees, mostly men, but sometimes women would assume—when we were together—that he was the lawyer, bypassing me entirely, and directing all introductions and questions to him as if I wasn’t there,” Copion said. “This happens less as I progress in my career, but sadly being looked over still happens at an alarming degree. In my experience, being looked past and unseen happens at an alarmingly higher rate for women lawyers than men.”
While Corpion believes women lawyers are looked past and unseen at an alarmingly higher rate than our male counterparts, she said there is a lot of nuance to this subject and every person brings differing perspectives and experiences to the table.
“Some of my greatest mentors and supporters have been men who I see as true allies. This topic creates a great opportunity for dialogue and continued change, but no entire group can or should be vilified; the conversation must be more nuanced than that,” Corpion said.
‘Be More Prepared, Work Harder’
Kenyetta Alexander, Boca Raton partner and shareholder of Osherow, said throughout her career as a woman of color she has experienced the common microaggressions, and at times has not been taken seriously as an attorney.
“I have learned I must be more prepared, work harder and argue with more conviction than my counterparts in order to be heard and respected. I have walked into courtrooms and have been asked numerous times if I am a paralegal or a court reporter. I have been disrespected by clients and opposing counsel,” Alexander said. “In one situation, I was physically assaulted by a client in my office. In another situation, opposing counsel referred to me as ‘honey’ while we were arguing a motion before a judge. At the time, I had to take a step back and a take deep breath, and then I politely asked him to ‘please don’t call me honey, as it is disrespectful’. The judge reprimanded him and instructed him to only refer to me by either ‘counsel’ or ‘Ms. Alexander’. ”
Alexander also expressed how opposing counsel once relayed misleading information before the day of a hearing.
“At a hearing, I was asked, ‘Where is Mr. Osherow?’ I simply replied, ‘I will be arguing the motion today.’ I have worked with opposing counsel who believe just because of who I am that they can push me around,” Alexander said. “ I’ve been in situations where opposing counsel will tell me one thing over the telephone or email the day before a hearing, only to do the complete opposite in court. In those cases, I make sure the judge knows what information was relayed to me previously.”
Alexander said she is extremely fortunate to have Mark Osherow in her life as her mentor, partner and friend.
“He continuously encourages me, promotes me and gives me the platform I need to excel as an attorney,” Alexander said. “I encourage all women lawyers, especially women of color, to believe in yourself, stay strong, find a mentor(s) and a strong support system of people who believe in you, push you to grow and genuinely want the best for you.”
Changing the Narrative
Carlton Fields Miami shareholder and partner Yolanda Strader said she has been mistaken for a court reporter in a few depositions and court appearances over her 12-plus years of practice.
“I’ve also been asked if I am the legal assistant. I don’t attribute malice to any of these instances. Frankly, there are very few people who look like me in large law firm environments, and increasing the numbers of women of color in courtrooms and boardrooms will help change the narrative of what people think a lawyer looks like.”
Strader said she is grateful to have grown up professionally at a law firm like Carlton Fields, because it is a firm that values your work ethic and talent.
“Your initiative will drive big cases your way. Your good work will lead to good cases. Nevertheless, I believe that women of color in the law face unique hurdles ranging from imposter syndrome and microaggressions to burnout and managing unrealistic expectations,” Strader said. “There are so many ways to deal with these issues, and the best of firms have resources to do just that—including internal affinity groups, participation in diversity-based organizations, sponsorship and mentorship programs and promoting an inclusive environment.”