Unconscious Bias: I Am Not A Paralegal

I don’t have a lot of feminist gripes about my job. The legal profession is not necessarily woman- or family-friendly on a structural level, but my firm is pretty progressive and flexible. In part, this is a blessing of working in a large urban area. Working women and working mothers are typical in Chicago. Law firms offer generous (by US standards) parental leave policies to remain competitive. Employees are educated about women’s issues. I am also fortunate to work at a relatively small firm with great people. When I ran into some insurance-related bumps while preparing for maternity leave, a female partner and the one-woman HR department helped find a solution that was beneficial to my family and the firm. After a single day of watching me fret over the possibility of somebody walking in on me while pumping, my secretary called the facilities guys up to install a lock on my door.  A senior partner makes an effort to call me at 4:50 instead of 5:15 after he got my voice mail a few days in a row. I’m pretty sure it bugs the heck out of him, but I appreciate the accommodation.

I want to make it really clear that I recognize the many ways that American women are treated extraordinarily well in professional settings. Thank you, second wave feminists! Thank you for making my life possible!

In fact, it’s the way that women are treated in the professional and academic worlds that made it impossible for me to ignore inequality in the LDS church (but that’s a bunch of other posts for another time). Where inequality in the church is so blatant an outsider could spot it in a minute (as one friend who visited my congregation to witness my daughter’s blessing ceremony put it, “Where are all the women?”), the impact that gender has in my work life is subtle and generally stems from a lifetime of being socialized to act a certain way, rather than from sexist assumptions about women.

So, for example, I apologize more than my male colleagues, I speak up less and nod more at meetings, I am more deferential to partners, particularly male partners, and I am too modest about my accomplishments. On the positive side, I am willing to ask copious questions to clarify assignment parameters, I provide exposition and detail when I give a presentation or write a memo, I am very good at managing teams of people, and am able to establish an easy rapport with difficult witnesses and opposing counsel. These are things to be aware of, to break down and understand, to correct or use to my advantage. They impact my day-to-day and may even impact my advancement, but they’re within my control. They don’t keep me up at night because I am confident that in the minds of judges, partners, clients, other associates, and staff, gender does not matter. I can’t tell you what a relief this is, in comparison to Mormonism, where gender issues are so fraught.

In this environment, it’s jarring when somebody does or says something that’s overtly sexist. It throws off my whole day. It’s like a slap in the face for being naive enough to think that there are places where I exist as a person on the same terms as men.

Here’s an example. Frequently, I work on projects that require correspondence with external witnesses. At every turn, in every email and phone call, I introduced myself as “counsel for [client].” Sometimes I talk to folks for over an hour over the course of several calls and emails, discussing legal and factual issues. Occasionally, several months will lapse, and then new questions will come up that require going back to an old witnesses. More than once, I’ve reconnected with somebody, only to be brushed off because that person “already spoke to a paralegal from my firm.”

Hold the phone. Just because you spoke to me once doesn’t mean you don’t have to answer fresh questions. Also, I’m not a paralegal!

I’m not insulted because I think paralegals are less important than lawyers. To the contrary, paralegals are indispensable to the work that goes on at my firm and to my own practice.

Nor am I bothered by the inaccuracy. I get it, we talked awhile ago, people make mistakes. They probably didn’t take notes during our conversation or convert those notes into a memo and then discuss that memo with multiple partners for several months. I don’t expect their memory of our conversations to be as fresh as mine.

What I do find troubling is that the assumption that women are paralegals, not attorneys, is so deeply ingrained that it causes people familiar with the legal system to dismiss basic information that I provided directly to them or that they already knew about how litigation works. I always identify myself as a lawyer, usually multiple times. (I’m ethically required to disclose this and find that it’s often necessary to get people to agree to talk to me, so I go overboard with it.) Generally, the people I’m talking to have had no contact with a paralegal or other support staff from my firm. Also, the work I do is clearly legal in nature. (I don’t know how other shops do it, but paralegals generally don’t conduct large-scale investigations or draft pleadings.)

Why would somebody discard true information from the most knowledgeable source in favor of untrue information founded on nothing? Why would somebody discard basic knowledge about legal versus paralegal tasks in attempting to recall the identity of a professional woman? Because they couldn’t remember and let an unfiltered sexist assumption fill in the blanks.

That’s how unconscious bias works, folks.

This might not seem like a big deal, but let me assure you this isn’t about my bruised ego. Rather, this is a crack in the progressive facade of the legal profession that exposes structural inequality and deep-seated prejudice.

Nearly half of all law school graduates are women, but relatively few advance to the highest levels of private practice, and those that do are compensated less and command lower billing rates. There are lots of reasons for this, but a big one is that women aren’t perceived as rainmakers, even when they helped bring in or retain a client. Women are often shut out  of rainmaking opportunities (say, on the golf course) and inherit business from institutional clients at lower rates than men. It is possible that women don’t pursue these opportunities? Absolutely. Is it possible that clients give their business to attorneys they prefer? Sure. But my experiences with people automatically assuming that I am support staff rather than an attorney, despite strong evidence to the contrary, suggests that there is something more pernicious at work. Namely, decision-makers — clients, bosses, management committees, etc. — don’t see women as lawyers even when they know perfectly well that women are lawyers.

What does this mean in my practice? It means that I can wear the suit and do the work and get favorable results for my clients, but I will always be fighting to convince someone that I am as competent, capable, and professional as men are presumed to be just for showing up.

What does this mean for people who can’t shake preconceived notions about women in traditionally male workplaces? If they’re an employer, it means they’re wasting talent. If they’re a client, it means they’re missing out on quality representation.

Talk about a lose-lose situation.

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