Sexism in the Courtroom: Female Litigators Share Their Personal Experiences

Written by Kristin Johnson, Helen Hsu, and Dina Roth Port

Mar 12, 2019
sexism in the courtroom: litigators share their personal experiences

 

As a follow up to our earlier post, Sexism in the Courtroom: A Serious Problem Lawyers Need to Discuss, here’s a snapshot of what female lawyers shared with Rocket Matter about their experiences in the courtroom today:

“While it is very common to see female judges and lawyers in the courtroom, harassment and sexism persists. Just this week, I was in a conference with a male court attorney, and while I was arguing my point, I was reprimanded and told I should ‘calm down.’ He also added, ‘I have to hear my wife yelling at home, I don’t want to hear it at work.’ I was no more argumentative or loud than opposing counsel (who was also male).” —Jacqueline Harounian, partner in a family law firm in Great Neck, New York

“During one trial, the male judge called me into chambers, telling my male associate and male opposing counsel to wait outside. The first words from the judge were, ‘I don’t have a problem with women, but they have a problem with me.’ He then went on a long rant against women lawyers, saying we weren’t respectful to him, we were too aggressive, and our skirts were too high. He ended by shouting, ‘Don’t you understand? We need you at home with Manhattan in hand waiting for us because we earn the income!’  When my partners heard the story, they were very supportive, and one of them cut out a Manhattan glass and pinned it to my bulletin board, where it remained for years.

Another time, I was lead counsel in a complex commercial case. During trial, my male opposing counsel ran into a staff attorney for another judge on the same court (a female). He told her he was ‘worried’ about me, that I was ‘very emotional’ and seemed to be under  ‘a lot of stress.’ He asked if I was ‘ok.’ I was lead counsel in a multi-million dollar complex commercial trial. The staff attorney, who was watching the trial, was appalled at his comments and told him, ‘She’s fine. And she’s kicking your ass.'”  —Cathleen Bolek, a partner at an employment law firm in Cleveland, Ohio

“Once during oral argument on a motion where I was assigned to do the argument but had my older male partner sitting next to me, the male judge looked at me and said, ‘You’re annoying me, I’d like to hear from him,’ and pointed at the male partner who had not prepared to do the argument. Recently, male opposing counsel repeatedly called me “darling” in court. I am a 43 year old woman with almost 20 years of experience including serving as a Federal Prosecutor (Not that I should have to explain that). Also, I often represent survivors of clergy sexual abuse. The first time I met defense counsel, he pulled me out of the courtroom and gave me a laundry list of clerical tasks that he said I needed to do for the case. I scolded him about this, and for the next seven years of repeatedly opposing each other, he tried to exclude me from case negotiations in favor of my male partner, failed to include me in communications, and in meetings, asked my male partner if he could ‘shut me up.'” —Nicole Gorovsky, whose firm handles cases ranging from sexual assault and school bullying to cybercrime and identity theft in Clayton, Missouri

“I was leading a deposition of a plaintiff, and the plaintiff’s attorney (an older gentleman) kept interjecting and rephrasing my questions to his client, changing what I was actually asking. I reprimanded him on the record, and he didn’t like it. Once the deposition was over and we were off the record, he berated me at length, saying everything from ‘Women shouldn’t be attorneys,’ and ‘Female attorneys want to be treated with kid gloves,’ to  ‘We can dish it out but can’t take it.’ The icing on the cake was when he told me that I shouldn’t be a lawyer, and that I should be in a kitchen cooking. He did this in the presence of a co-defendant’s attorney and the court reporter, but he had no shame. It was so bad that co-defendant’s counsel called the managing partner of my office and said, whatever she tells you is 100% true. After that, I filed a formal complaint with the First Department’s ethics committee.” —Patricia Carbone, a personal injury lawyer in New York City

“I have been called ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ so many times that not one incident sticks out more than the other. I usually just shake my head at them and move on with my day. And, of course, there are judges that make silly rules for women. There is one judge who requires any woman who is wearing a skirt or dress in his courtroom to also wear hose. Like real old-timey pantyhose that a grandmother would wear. But I think the worst is being treated like you aren’t there on a case in which you are lead counsel. I was lead on a murder case a few years ago. I wrote all the motions and conducted all pre-trial motion hearings. All communications to opposing counsel came from me. But any time the opposing male attorney wanted to talk about an issue with the case, he would walk right by me and go talk to my second chair who was also male. Then to make matters worse, my second chair would agree to things and then come tell me what the men had decided.”  —Angela Singleton, a criminal defense attorney in Oklahoma City

“Since day one of my entering the legal profession, I have been treated as a glorified secretary. The insinuation has been, ‘I know you’re associate counsel, but can you get me coffee?’ Since I am a woman of color, there are two battles to be won when I step into the courtroom, as demonstrated by the court mistaking me for the defendant. I have been told several times, ‘This area is reserved for attorneys, you need to go back and wait for counsel.’” —Faith Fox, a family law and personal injury lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina

“During a post-conviction evidentiary hearing, I examined the state fire marshal as a hostile witness. Throughout my exam, he called me ‘young lady’ and referred to me only in the third person, talking to the judge or the Commonwealth Attorney. When my questioning became more challenging, and after I impeached him a few times with a treatise on fire scene investigation, he stood at the witness stand and stared me down during questioning. I let it go on for a bit so as not to dignify his behavior with a response. The judge finally stopped my questioning and asked the fire marshal why he was standing. The fire marshal said he had been taught it was impolite to sit when ladies were present. The judge told him to have a seat.” —Rachel Schaefer, a Capital Habeas attorney in San Francisco

“Once as I was questioning witnesses in a hearing, the opposing counsel kept calling me a bitch under his breath. He was saying it loud enough for my client to hear it and was looking at me. My client told me what was going on and I asked for counsel to approach the bench. I asked our judge to please ask opposing counsel to refrain from calling me a bitch while the hearing was going on. The judge asked counsel to stop, but he never did.” —Aleta Larger, who practices family law in Tifton, Georgia

“In one of my cases, I filed a motion to dismiss. At the hearing, the older attorney made a show of serving me with his motion to strike my motion before the court staff, while referring to me as ‘young lady.’ That behavior, along with the fact that his motion was bogus, made it clear that his behavior was intended to intimidate me. Undaunted, I brushed it off and laid his motion face down on the table without bothering to read it in order to convey some clear body language about having been disrespected. He didn’t get the message. After he blustered on the record over irrelevancies, I stated a warranted objection on the record, to which he responded, ‘Sit down young lady!’

Now, I am not one to go hunting for sexism under every rock. I have grace and understanding that some things are said and done unwittingly, in ignorance, often by people of an older generation without sexist intentions. But this one is clear because no right-minded attorney would treat an objection of record as though it’s an unwarranted interruption by a disrespectful ‘young lady.’ To my surprise, the judge gave a slightly displeased look but did not say anything. Oh, but this ‘young lady’ won the motion to dismiss right there.” —Cassaundra Edwards, a litigator in Ohio and Kentucky

“As a female attorney, I have sadly grown accustomed to condescending comments and administrative assignments as the norm in the legal world.  I cannot count on one hand the number of times that during a deposition or hearing, it has been assumed by the court or the other attorneys in the room that I am the court reporter or a law student or a paralegal, anything but the attorney of record.  

While I had gotten used to smaller forms of discrimination, I was recently reminded that, as a female attorney, I am still considered to be inferior to my male counterparts. I arrived to the court house early and sat in on the hearing before mine. The judge called the male attorney to the podium and questioned him as to the issue before the court—a motion for sanctions.  It was immediately apparent that the male attorney had no knowledge about the case, as he was fumbling with his papers to answer the basic question as to which party he represented.  He received little issue from the court, who—without any oral argument—granted the attorney’s motion for sanctions.  The judge then called my case.  I stepped up to the podium and began my oral argument opposing a motion to compel discovery. After several minutes, the judge interrupted me, asking me questions about an obscure, albeit tangentially related, area of law not at all relevant to the discovery motion before the court.  After I stated that I did not know the answer to his question but could provide him the requested information upon my return to my office, he asked ‘Were you sent here just for the experience of arguing a discovery motion or because the partner on this matter from your firm didn’t think this motion was important enough to come himself?’  It didn’t matter that I was prepared on the issue before the courts—undeniably more so than the male attorney who appeared before me.  To the older generation of male attorneys and judges who still serve as decision-makers in courtrooms, boardrooms, and in law firms, I will always be inexperienced and naive, needing guidance from my male superiors—solely because I am female.” —Melissa Hazell-Davis, who handles commercial litigation, insurance coverage, and labor and employment matters at a firm in Philadelphia

“Generally, most judges are respectful of the practitioners appearing before them, whether male or female.  However, I have had several instances where court staff has made comments such as, ‘You look too young to be an attorney’ or other similar remarks.  These comments happened not only when I was a very young lawyer, but also after I became a director/shareholder.  I have also had issues in other jurisdictions outside of Arizona (where the bulk of my practice is based) relating to judges being hostile to female attorneys, while older men were given significant and often unjustified deference.  I have heard numerous horror stories of judges refusing to move a hearing and/or trial dates when an attorney was pregnant and could not travel to an out of state proceeding.  We have made a lot of progress, but still have a long way to go.” —Courtney R. Beller, a business litigator in Phoenix, Arizona

“I’m a female attorney practicing litigation for the past six years in New Orleans. What has struck me is how men defer to female judges in the courtroom. Almost 80% of men in the courtroom will call a female judge ‘Mam’ instead of ‘Your Honor.’ I think this is the biggest mistake a man can make in the courtroom. A man would never defer to a male judge as ‘Sir,’ so why would you defer to a female judge as ‘Mam.'” —Hannah Beth Salter, a personal injury attorney in New Orleans

“Once, I was very pregnant during a criminal trial. On a break, the forman asked the male bailiff for coffee with  milk. The bailiff told the juror he could just ask me to give him milk. He then told me this joke himself thinking it was so funny.” —Anonymous

“I am a practicing attorney with 23 years of experience and can attest to numerous times when, as a young (and petite) trial attorney I had male colleagues try to intimidate me with aggressive behaviors like yelling and physically getting in my space. I have encountered similar behaviors from male witnesses as well. Thankfully, I am fearless and known not to back down,” —Sonia Frontera, an immigration and divorce lawyer in Lambertville, New Jersey 

“As a third-year litigator, I was lucky enough to be given my own caseload to manage, working in the civil litigation department of a major city.  Accordingly, it was frequently my choice as to whether to settle a case or take it to trial.  In one particular auto tort case, plaintiff’s counsel had been overly aggressive, to the point of being hostile, throughout the discovery period, in urging me to settle the case.  The City had good defenses, however, and I felt we needed to try it.  On the day of trial, the plaintiff’s counsel was particularly rude.  During our first break in the trial, after a particularly contentious evidentiary dispute, he followed me to the lobby, where he came up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, started massaging me, and said in my ear, ‘You need to relax, counselor.’  I was stunned.  I told him to please take his hands off of me.  Counsel for my co-defendant, also male, was standing there and witnessed this, but he too was so appalled that he was speechless. Fortunately, we won the case.  I intentionally avoided plaintiff’s counsel afterwards, but later that afternoon, the counsel for the co-defendant called me to apologize for not saying anything to plaintiff’s counsel when he touched me, and said he would be happy to sign an affidavit for me if I filed a grievance.  I never did.” —Melodie H. Hengerer, a civil defense litigator in Baltimore, Maryland