One of my first depositions was in a large case with many parties. I was both stunned and delighted that I had been asked to take this on. Before I walked in the room, emotions gnawed at my insides: a cocktail of self-doubt, excitement, and pride. I looked out the windows on the 30-somethingth floor, tried to play it cool as I surveyed the cityscape below, yet I was flat-out scared. Around that enormous conference room table sat eleven middle-aged, male lawyers in dark suits. And a male deponent who didn’t want to be there. They all were seated, waiting for me to begin, waiting for me to make a mistake, waiting for their opportunity to object. My lone female companion was the stenographer.
This is the gendered reality of being a litigator. Six out of the seven attorneys I work with at my firm are men. Most have been practicing for 30 or 40 years; literally practicing law longer than I have been alive. They are six of the best men I have ever met. But still. In my profession, a woman is a rarity. I sit in packed courtrooms and spy, only sometimes, one other woman waiting for a case to be called.
Is it the blatant conflicts and inevitable confrontations, central to all of our cases, that drive women to other fields? I thought we were beyond these stereotypes. Maybe it’s the pressure and stress of deadlines and the constant public speaking but that would suppose woman can’t — or don’t want — to tackle these challenges.
Litigating, the way we do it, also means fighting for what you think is right, on behalf of people who need your compassion. Our clients come to us because they’ve had the worst day of their life. I would think this would draw women to litigation in droves. But, sadly, that’s not the case.
In my childhood dreams of power suits and courtroom arguments, I imagined lawyers of all shapes and sizes, all genders, all ages. Litigation is, in fact, filled overwhelmingly with middle-aged men. Just like Congress. I’m still not sure why this is, and I’m not going to hypothesize on the topic. But I know it’s a fact and one I face every day. There is a certain kind of fearlessness you need to be young, inexperienced and female in the world of high-stakes litigation.
If you’re thinking of litigating, get ready to feel very alone. Get ready for your mostly male opponents to automatically shake the hand of the man beside you. Get ready for some people to be oversensitive because of your gender. Get ready for the flicker of surprise to cross a man’s face when he realizes you’re not there to be a spectator. And I don’t blame them; my presence is, by the numbers, a surprise.
I graduated from law school at 25 years old and joined a small firm. Sink or swim. Within a year, I was taking depositions and covering hearings. Within two years, I had begun arguing motions and helped draft an appeal. And this year, I tried my first case. I consider myself unspeakably lucky to have these opportunities, to fulfill my dreams. And with that good fortune, I feel responsibility. Responsibility to my female peers, and to future female litigators, to make sure their presence isn’t a surprise anymore. This demands an ever-present need to be fearless. You need to be fearless to face rooms full of men, way beyond you in experience, and take them to task. There is no time and no room for self-doubt.
It was on the 30-somethingth floor of my first deposition that I learned my best lesson about fearlessness: it’s not innate. It’s not that some of us are born with it and some of us are not. It’s a choice, a practiced behavior, and, on many days, it’s a need. Fearlessness requires you to stop over-thinking and act. I need to be fearless because if I wasn’t, I would be scared. I need to be fearless because if I wasn’t, I would be quiet. I need to be fearless because if I wasn’t, I would be overlooked.
I need to be fearless because if I wasn’t, I would fail. And that is just not an option.