Sometime in the mid-1990s I was in a deposition and looked around the room and suddenly noticed that everyone there, the court reporter, the witnesses and the attorneys, were all women. This would have been unheard of even five years before, when I was so accustomed to being the only woman in the room, that the moment stuck with me ever since.
In 1982, I passed the bar at a time when California was a solidly red state on the verge of electing 16 straight years of Republican governors in George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. This meant that the men-first culture is something I saw practically at its height. While the last year or so has been tremendous for women in our country and in our state, it was a far different story when I was first cutting my teeth as a woman in the legal profession, even in such a progressive city as San Francisco.
My law firm, Mary Alexander & Associates is made up solely of female attorneys, something that would have been unheard of when I began practicing law. My firm is made up of women because I see the value in offering clients a tremendous crop of attorneys who are skilled at what they do and work tirelessly to obtain great results on their behalf. Another reason is that consumers need the option of an all-female legal team.
Today, with women of all ages experiencing victory after victory in the fight for freedom and recognition, there are still different standards for men and women. When I began, Sandra Day O’Connor had just become the first female justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, so while women were seeing some breakthrough, it was still one out of nine. Being held to a different standard meant I had to stay motivated to fight harder for the causes of my clients as well as my own cause. I’m glad our culture has progressed, but the battles I had to endure made me what I am today.
It has always been the case that women are required to prove themselves in ways men do not. For those of us who “blazed a trail” so to speak for female litigators, we learned some valuable lessons as we carved out a hard-fought place in the legal industry. Chief among these I believe is that while women are unjustly held to a different standard than men, this injustice can be a great motivator. When a client wondered if I could accomplish the same result as a man or when opposing counsel attempted to intimidate me, it gave me extra resolve. To be honest, there are moments even today where I walk into a courtroom or even a deposition and opposing counsel will mistake me for a court reporter. While court reporters do great work, it’s a little shocking some men have their minds stuck in a bygone era. I should never have had to prove my gender was not a liability, but I could choose to allow that bias to make me that much stronger.
Trusting my instincts, and trusting that those instincts were worthwhile, were two areas I had to grow into. While there were many men who had no problem working next to a woman, they were not exactly thrilled to hear what I had to say. Part of anyone’s career involves learning when to speak up and when not to, but equally as important for all of those women who have been around as long as I have is trusting that my opinion holds weight. This came in part from being obsessed with the details of my case, knowing it backwards and forwards and spending every minute I could reviewing the details so that my confidence came from a deep knowledge of the facts, the law and the arguments presented. This wasn’t always easy, but that’s what it took to carve out my practice.
A particular turning point in my career came in the 1980s when I represented a woman who became a quadriplegic after a tragic bicycle crash in Yosemite National Park. The Curry family once had a contract to run Yosemite and at one particular station they had bicycle rentals where my client decided to pick one up for what she thought would be a great ride. Unfortunately, these bikes were made for the beach, not the rough and hilly terrain of Yosemite, and they were looked after by high school kids who repaired the brakes with other old brakes. The woman went down a hill, got into an accident and as a result she broke her neck and was paralyzed from the neck down. My co-counsel and I obtained a $13.3 million verdict and all of a sudden, the legal profession began to see me not as a “female attorney” but as a skilled trial attorney who could get results.
As my practice expanded, I also focused on taking leadership roles in some of the more prominent legal organizations in the state and country, including Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice and others. It’s been important these last few decades for women to hold those roles so we can make the necessary changes that allow for future women to also become leaders. At no point did I expect a man, no matter how sympathetic, to know the mind of a woman.
It has been a hard fight these last few decades, but the progress is truly amazing. I watched my heroes, Justices O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others like them forge a path for my generation, and hopefully we have done the same for those who are coming after us. These are exciting times, and leading a firm full of amazing attorneys who happen to be women has been one of the joys of my career.
Mary E. Alexander is the founding partner of Mary Alexander & Associates in San Francisco. Over the past 30 years, she has earned a national reputation as a plaintiff lawyer for her work protecting consumer rights and ensuring that those who have been injured by the negligent, preventable actions of others, get their day in court and the justice they deserve.