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Women’s panel shares experiences of gender bias in litigation

A law school professor, an in-house attorney and a district court judge shared stories Thursday of their experiences as women in litigation, telling a crowd of legal professionals how they’ve been on the receiving end of sexist jokes, been ignored by judges or been mistaken for court reporters and secretaries.

Judge Pamila Brown. (file.)

‘I was very conscious about people saying, “she’s really aggressive,” where my colleagues, if they were aggressive at a [deposition], they were a “fearless advocate,”’ District Court judge and MSBA President Pamila J. Brown says. (File photo)

Things have changed in the legal world, they said, but not quickly enough.

While overt instances of bias have significantly decreased, several panelists said at the “Overcoming Implicit Gender Bias in Litigation” event hosted by law firm Beveridge & Diamond PC, more subtle forms of prejudice that prevent women from advancing in the legal world are still prevalent.

“These patterns and biases are out there, but if we examine them, they can be corrected — they can be altered, they can be interrupted,” said Pamela D. Marks, managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond’s Baltimore office, who moderated the event.

Marks was joined in the discussion by District Court of Maryland Judge Pamila J. Brown, who is also the president of the Maryland State Bar Association; Kristin P. Herber, senior counsel for litigation at Under Armour; and Jane F. Barrett, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.

Differences in the way men and women are perceived professionally are often at the root of implicit bias, the panelists said. While it’s important for any attorney to ensure his or her demeanor in the courtroom adheres to a respectful standard, women are often under additional pressure to advocate for clients without seeming too combative, they said.

“I was very conscious about people saying, ‘she’s really aggressive,’ where my colleagues, if they were aggressive at a [deposition], they were a ‘fearless advocate,’” Brown said of her time as a litigator.

The problem can also arise in law firms’ evaluations of associate attorneys, Barrett said. Where a male associate’s passion or ambition might inspire confidence, a female associate’s leads to trepidation.

“It’ll be like, ‘Oh, she needs to tone it down,’” Barrett said. “Why does she need to tone it down, and not him?”

‘Make a path’

Barrett, who began working in private practice when she graduated from law school in 1976, said she was often in the “extreme minority” of litigators as a woman. In her experience, the client was often the decision maker when it came to choosing a lead attorney on a case, she said.

“Businesses need to hold law firms accountable and say, ‘I want diverse representation; I don’t just want to see the traditional white male heading up this practice group,’” she said.

As a 2001 law school graduate, Herber said she hasn’t experienced as much overt bias in the legal industry. Despite the increasing percentage of associates who are women, however, there is still a significant lack of female partners and even fewer female equity partners, she said, as women struggle to advance in an industry that often requires long hours and personal sacrifices.

“We still haven’t figured out a way to support women as they’re growing professionally,” she said. “We need to figure that out. We need to work to make the offices more friendly and supportive to women.”

And female attorneys should search for ways to develop their own skills and professional worth, whether by finding a mentor, volunteering for a nonprofit board or joining a professional association, Brown said.

When she had the chance to learn trademark law while working at Tydings & Rosenberg LLP in Baltimore, Herber said she immediately took it — a decision that helped lead to her position working in-house at Under Armour.

For more experienced attorneys, serving as mentors to other young lawyers is crucial, the panelists said. Partners dealing with young associates who don’t speak up should make sure their voices are being heard, Barrett said.

“That’s the burden we have as we progress in our careers,” Barrett said. “Make a path, because if we don’t, nobody’s going to make a path.”


About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.

One comment

  1. sstacy@bdlaw.com

    Thank you for your coverage of the panel. I want to add an important point that the panel discussion communicated: women are leaders throughout the legal profession – in the judiciary, corporations, firms and other sectors. The great news is that there are so very many successful woman in the legal field who could have served on the panel and shared their insights. The goal of the program was to help even more women become highly effective and powerful female litigators.

    In addition, I would like to note that the event was hosted by my firm on behalf of the National Association of Women Lawyers’ Litigation Affinity Group.
    – Pamela Marks, Panel Moderator and Shareholder, Beveridge & Diamond