Mean Girls? Perceptions of Women in the Practice of Law
by Becky Bye
Throughout high school and even college, I witnessed how mean girls and young women can be to one another. Whether out of jealousy or insecurity, women relentlessly say the snidest things to other women’s faces and say the meanest misconstructions of truth (or lies) behind their back. When I started law school, I observed that female relations could tread in these same areas. While there, though, I felt lucky to make numerous lifelong friendships with men and women alike.
When I graduated, I figured the animosity among women would remain within the halls of these institutions. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
As I started to practice law, I never imagined that gender would play a significant role in my interactions with lawyers and others in the legal field. I was wrong, but the gender issues did not stem from practicing in a profession that was historically male-dominated. The only gender issues I faced came from other women, even within my own firm or organization.
I noticed that some women from previous generations—many of them trailblazers in the profession—were harder on and harsher with me and many of my female colleagues. They also were nicer and maintained a softer demeanor to my same-aged male colleagues.
I’m not at liberty to go into details, but some of the intergenerational female behavior was unwarranted and, frankly, cruel. I also observed unpleasant behavior between women of similar ages.
Because of my own experiences, I asked other female and male friends about their observations. After countless discussions, I heard a number of disconcerting stories from others about their own experiences regarding negative interactions among women.
Additionally, at a recent roundtable I attended a well-known judge told the audience that when she started practicing, her biggest challenge was not the men (when the profession was overwhelmingly male-dominated), but the few women in the profession and at her firm. Another former judge followed up on her comment, telling me he also has observed, in his very own courtroom, the lack of civility among women attorneys. He was concerned and agreed that female tension in the practice of law was an issue. He took the time to talk to me and provide his own insight on how I can help resolve this in my practice.
My own discussions serve as a mere microcosm of how female tension—among female lawyers and between female lawyers and staff—may act as a hindrance to the legal practice. The American Bar Association also recognizes the issue of female tension in the law.
In 2008, the ABA surveyed nearly 4,500 women lawyers about gender relationships. The survey noted that among female attorneys under 40 who thought that gender makes a difference in the practice of law, 58 percent said male supervisors give better direction, give more constructive criticism (56 percent) and are better at keeping confidential information private (64 percent)1. One of the most dramatic statistics stems from the question: Do you feel that your female supervisors are more demanding of their employees who are [men or women]? Ninety-three percent answered "women."2
Some experts opined that the way women over 40 treat younger women derives from the fact that younger female generations do not wish to make the same personal sacrifices as their predecessors.3 More senior lawyers may not understand this mindset.4
Additionally, in 2009, when a Chicago–Kent law professor surveyed legal secretaries at large law firms about attorney preferences, 35 percent stated they preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates, 3 percent preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47 percent had no opinion.5
The secretaries provided various reasons for this significant preference, among them; some secretaries stated, "Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary," and "Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress."6
Female tension within the practice of law is an important issue to confront, because time and energy go into dealing with any negativity, which ultimately hurts clients and the legal process. Also, any negative interactions may harm our self-esteem and cause unnecessary frustrations beyond the time we spend practicing law.
Regardless of gender, you can take various measures to help overcome this issue. The most straightforward way is to speak face-to-face with whom you have an issue. Communicate why you believe this to be the case and try to amicably resolve any issues to make for a better working relationship.
If you are uncomfortable or unable to directly confront the problem (for example, the person you would like to confront is your boss), speak with someone else in the workplace—such as a member of your human resources department—about your experience and see what advice he or she may have.
Moreover, find a mentor with whom you may interact frequently. The importance of mentoring cannot be overstated; in fact, Chief Justice Michael Bender has initiated a working group that has implemented a more formal, effective mentoring program among lawyers in Colorado. Whether you are male or female, mentorship is a must for your career, which will help guide you in how to confront various issues in the practice of law (including gender issues).7
More important, you must always strive to lead by example. You cannot control the behavior, attitudes, and thoughts of others; however, you can control your own. Often, negative or positive attitudes and behaviors are easily reciprocated by interactions, so make sure you set a positive example, regardless of how others treat you.
As everyone recognizes, the makeup of the legal profession has been changing, and all attorneys need to recognize that an open dialogue must take place among diverse groups—those of different gender, age, and cultural backgrounds.
I feel lucky to have a variety of mentors and friendships in the practice of law, including amazing female attorney mentors, role models, friends, and confidantes. These relationships remain special and important to me and have enhanced my legal practice and enriched my life. I encourage all attorneys to seek these same professional and personal relationships, because negative relationships are unproductive and unnecessary. D
What’s your take on tension among women lawyers? Share your thoughts in a letter to the editor by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becky Bye may be reached at
1. Stephanie Francis Ward, "What Women Lawyers Really Think About Each Other," ABA Journal (February 2008), available at: abajournal.com/magazine/article/what_women_lawyers_really_think_of_each_other.
5. Debra Cassens Weiss, "Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working With Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why," ABA Journal (October 2011), available at: abajournal.com/news/article/not_one_legal_secretary_surveyed_preferred_working_with_women_lawyers_prof_.
6. Id. See also Victoria Pynchon, "American Bar Association Re-Covers Woman Lawyer/Secretary Study," Forbes (November 2011), available at: forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2011/11/04/american-bar-association-journal-re-covers-woman-lawyersecretary-study.
7. If you are having difficulty finding a mentor, a variety of organizations may help find one for you, including the Denver Bar Association, Colorado Women’s Bar Association, and the Inns of Court chapters in the Denver area.