One Reason the Legal Profession is So Screwed Up

DangerAs some of you may have seen, I published a piece on Ms. JD recently that raised some heckles: What No One Tells You Before You Go to Law School: You’re Entering a Sexist Profession. The reactions to this piece were very interesting:

  1. Wow, thank you for writing this. I’ve seen/experienced the same thing but no one really talks about it.
  2. I haven’t seen this at my firm, so it must not happen.
  3. I wasn’t aware this was a problem, but now I am and I appreciate you telling me.
  4. Too bad this happened, but it was probably your fault.

It’s that last reaction that I find most interesting. These types of reactions fall into two categories:

  1. You should have done something to make this guy stop harassing you.
  2. If you’d dressed differently, or behaved differently, you wouldn’t have been a target.
The “Just Tell Him to Stop” School of Thought

Several people suggested that I should “just have just told him to leave me alone” (conveniently ignoring the fact that I did tell him repeatedly to leave me alone).

For the record, here’s why that approach, even if employed, doesn’t tend to work.

Anyone doing this sort of thing is either a) totally clueless or b) actually malicious.

What happens when you tell someone who’s totally clueless that you’re not interested and want to be left alone? They don’t get it. They’re clueless — which is why they’re behaving this way to begin with.

What happens when you tell someone who’s actually malicious that you’re not interested and want to be left alone? They ignore you. Their whole purpose is to make you uncomfortable. Why would saying you’re uncomfortable improve matters?

The “It’s Your Fault” School of Thought

The far more interesting reaction, and one that seems broadly applicable to many bizarre aspects of the legal profession, is the “you must have provoked this” school of thought.

Conveniently, at the time this piece went up, I was reading Kate McGuinness’s new book, Terminal Ambition. I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now all you need to know is that it’s a novel about sexual harassment, set in a large law firm. One of the associates in the firm decides to file suit against the firm for blatant harassment by a more senior associate, and her attorney warns her not to expect support from the other women in the office:

“I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve learned it’s about emotion, not logic. Deep down, the women want to believe you did something to bring this on yourself. The–”

“But I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t but they want to believe that because it makes them feel safe, insulated from the same thing happening to them.”

“I don’t get it.”

“They want to believe their world is orderly…In that orderly world, you would be harassed and targeted only if you invited it. If they don’t invite it, they’ll be safe.”

If they don’t invite it, they’ll be safe.

The Fruitless Quest for Safety

That, in a nutshell, seems be the key to much of the insane vitriol that characterizes certain corners of the legal profession.

  • Why are lawyers and law students so obsessed with status? Because if they can just get into the “right” school or the “right” firm, they’ll be safe, and their lives will be perfect.
  • Why are so many lawyers obsessed with money? Because, at some point in the distant future, they imagine that they’ll have a large enough bank account to feel safe, and they’ll be able to stop worrying about being worthless.
  • Why are there so many insane partners running around, wreaking havoc and refusing to admit to any mistakes? Because continuous perfection is the only way to feel safe. Admitting any weakness or uncertainty is unthinkable, even if it leads to horrendously bad decisions.

Does this quest for safety drive every lawyer? Obviously not.

But I think there’s something uniquely lawyer-like in this quest for safety.

If you’re inherently a bit risk-averse and are looking for professional security, what do you do? You go to law school. Once you’re there, you’re told that the only path to a secure career is to get excellent grades and go work for a large, stable law firm or corporation. (Never mind that these firms, particularly, aren’t all that stable to begin with and can’t guarantee you anything resembling stability or safety.) Assuming you get one of these jobs, your only goal is to keep it — which means putting your head down and working away, no complaints, no diversions.

In this tidy little world, the idea that you — YOU — could be unfairly targeted seems crazy. No way! You’re a winner. You’re playing by the rules. You should be safe!

Yeah, well, tell that to the former Dewey associates, or Howery associates, or Heller associates, or whatever the fallen-law-firm-de-jour is. Tell that to the person down the hall who found herself being sexually harassed within weeks of arriving at the firm. Tell that to the first-year associates who got laid off a month after they started, when the partners decided they couldn’t pay those salaries AND take home the requisite $1.2 million per year.

News flash: The world isn’t safe, it isn’t necessarily fair, and it’s changing rapidly.

It seems to me you’ve got two choices:

  1. See the writing on the wall, and accept that the only way to really be secure is to get comfortable with uncertainty — FAST.
  2. Resist, put your faith in seemingly stable institutions, and hope for the best. (Maybe if you’re just perfect enough, it will all work out.)

It’s up to you which way you go, but I’d think carefully about the decision. And, while you’re at it, maybe try to work up a little empathy for someone who’s suddenly in the not-safe zone. Chance are good it’s not really their fault they’ve ended up there…

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  1. Alison, I really enjoyed this post. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m an undergrad who has spent the past four years or so trying to decide if I should become a lawyer or not. I’m still not entirely sure what I’m going to do, but I’m leaning away from going to law school.

    Anyway, I was not aware of this problem in the legal profession and I’m really glad you wrote that original article over at Ms. JD (and this post, too).

    • Glad to be of assistance! Certainly it’s not something *everyone* encounters, but I do think it’s surprisingly common. I, at least, was surprised!

  2. Your description of a lawyer’s quest for safety struck me as quite insightful and true for many lawyers and lawyers-to-be.

    It’s a little heartbreaking to consider the dynamic of seeking safety from external sources that can never truly provide it.

  3. One thing that amazes me about sexual harassment in the legal profession is how brazen it can be. A female colleague once related a story to me about how, when she was a summer associate at a mid-sized law firm, one of the firm-name partners pointed her out at a meeting with clients as the “exotic Asian woman” they hired (both racism and misogyny at the same time – it’s like he was playing Title VII bingo). Of course, she was a summer associate and he was a named partner. How the hell do you complain about or fight back against an incident like that?

    I always wondered why sexual harassment and discrimination are so common among law firms, which are full of high status, educated people who should be in the best position to know the possible legal consequences of engaging in that kind of behavior. My rather depressing theory is that this happens not in spite of the knowledge of the consequences of sexual harassment, but because of it. If you’re a reasonably knowledgeable attorney, you probably know more than most people how hard it is to prevail as a plaintiff on a sexual harassment suit and how embarrassing and unpleasant the fact-finding involved in such litigation can be for the plaintiff. And in this era of bad job prospects and high debts, you may know just how far the target of your harassment stands to fall from doing anything that smacks of being a malcontent.

    • Very cynical, but probably accurate, sadly. In California, firms are required to host “sexual harassment training” every few years, and it literally was “What can you get away with?” Nothing about stopping the behavior, just telling people how to CYA.

      I’m sure not all of the session are like this, but the one I attended (put on by an HR consulting company) definitely was.

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