You Should Smile More ….

Growing up, it never occurred to me that there were things I couldn’t do or couldn’t become because of my gender. Attending a women’s college only solidified my confidence. I was encouraged to speak my mind and argue passionately and persuasively. Even better, I was surrounded by other ambitious women who served as a support network and as my teachers outside of the classroom; the women I met there forced me to challenge my assumptions, think bigger, and reach higher. When I decided on a career in the law, sexism seemed like an antiquated notion, a historical footnote highlighted in period pieces like Mad Men, along with rotary-dial telephones.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. It started in law school, where I relished the opportunity to learn hands-on litigation skills by participating in moot court and trial advocacy programs. Professors lobbed the now-familiar critique at me and other women (but never men): Smile more. I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to smile while delivering an oral argument premised on a grisly criminal law hypothetical, but I did it anyway, because otherwise, I was told, I would come off as “cold” and “unlikable.”

After these experiences in law school, I wasn’t dissuaded from pursuing litigation, but I chose carefully when deciding where to practice. I chose to join a woman-owned law firm, where the partnership is seriously dedicated to mentoring and teaching its associates, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, not all firms are like mine, and I’m still trying to figure out how to navigate the casual sexism that seems to be endemic to the profession. I’ve often been the only woman in a room full of men. I’ve had opposing counsel try to intimidate me by threatening to call the judge in the middle of a deposition, continually ask to speak to the (male) partner on the case instead of me when calling the office on a matter for which I was responsible, and even ask why I was “allowed” to speak in court when a male partner was sitting next to me. My firm has always been squarely in my corner in these situations.

I’m hopeful that the current generation of attorneys will, like my firm, encourage young women to speak up and build skills. The more commonplace we become, the more we can begin to dismantle the stereotypes used to try and hold us back.