Solo Attorney, Joleena Louis, gives us her tips on how she deals with sexism, ageism and racism in her solo law practice.
As a young, female, African-American attorney I have encountered many forms of discrimination over the years.
A very memorable incident occurred in Brooklyn family court . I was sitting with my client, wearing my favorite grey suit, reviewing the file while waiting on the case to be called.
My client was sitting beside me sporting a sweater and knitting (it helped her stay calm and relaxed).
Her husband had a new attorney that asked the court officer if we had checked in yet. The court officer pointed us out, and the attorney proceeded to ask which one of us was the attorney.
It couldn’t possibly be the African-American woman in the suit! An African-American attorney? That would be preposterous!
Disrespect doesn’t just happen to me.
Believe it or not, this is quite common in the legal world. In addition to racial implications, there has been discrimination towards my age and gender. I have had to tell older male attorneys not to call me “sweetheart,” “darling,” or “girl.”
I’ve dealt with this in addition to unwanted flirting, comments on my attire, and general condescension due to my age.
Many of my female friends (who are also attorneys) have had experiences similar to mine.
I’m not unconvinced that the transgressions get done simply to get a rise out of me, or to gain some kind of perceived competitive advantage. And while I would never give the offender the satisfaction, let them know this, it makes my blood boil.
But if you do nothing and let every instance slide, the offenders will think the behavior is acceptable. Respond too harshly and you’ll be called emotional, hysterical, a b#@ch, or an ABW (Angry Black Woman).
Bottom line: The behavior is unnecessary and really detracts from the practice of law.
How I deal with an issue.
How should you respond to these “infractions” in a professional manner?
From my experiences and other female solos, I have learned a few ways to deal with it.
1. Have confidence in your position as a solo attorney.
First and foremost, always be prepared and let your work speak for you. This has been helpful in dealing with one particular attorney who likes to constantly remind me of his years of experience and give me “advice” on how to conduct my case.
While I’m always open to genuine advice from other attorneys, he tends to be condescending and offers his counsel in an effort to intimidate me.
I know the facts of the case and I know the law. It makes him so angry that I have won every motion so far in this case.
2. Firmly address it and move on.
The times I’ve been called sweetheart or girl, I looked the speaker in the eye and firmly told him “please don’t call me sweetheart.” Then I move on with the conversation.
Moving on allows you to project assertiveness. It says, “I refuse to put up with your condescension, and you didn’t rattle me enough to interrupt the important work at hand.” It also allows the other person to move past the incident as well.
Dwelling on it simply opens you up to scrutiny. To date, this has been enough.
3. Let them dig their own grave.
If they are racist or sexist, most likely you are not the only one who notices. In the situation where the attorney assumed I wasn’t the attorney, the court officer actually pulled me aside to tell me not to let the racism get to me.
Family law attorneys appear before the same few judges and your reputation precedes you in the courtroom. I didn’t have to do or say anything, that attorney made himself look bad.
Have you ever dealt with discrimination in the courtroom as a solo attorney? Comment below and give us your thoughts!
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Joleena Louis is a matrimonial and family law attorney at Joleena Louis Law, a ﬁrm she founded after leaving a boutique matrimonial ﬁrm in Brooklyn. Joleena is a client in Law Firm Suites’ start-up program in Downtown, New York. Her weekly blog series Things I Wish I Knew… explores her thought process and experiences in her transition from small law ﬁrm employee to successful solo practice entrepreneur.