September 30, 2023
Slights: Female attorneys still battle gender bias in the courtroom
"I am routinely asked, 'Are you a lawyer,'" says attorney Margot Moss.

Of Counsel

Slights: Female attorneys still battle gender bias in the courtroom

Female attorneys still battle gender bias in the courtroom.

Art Levy | 7/24/2015

At the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ annual meeting this summer, not long after the “Elements of Dynamic Voir Dire” panel discussion and just before a seminar called “Ten Tips to Help Lawyers Thrive in the Evolving Legal Market Place,” there was a session with a far more pointed title: “Women Lawyers: The Crap People Think, but Won’t Admit.”

Miami attorney Sabrina Puglisi, who organized and moderated the session, says she could have focused on a more conventional topic such as the disparity in pay between men and women lawyers. According to the American Bar Association, for example, female attorneys are typically paid about 20% less than male attorneys, and women account for just 4% of managing partners at the nation’s 200 largest law firms.

Instead, Puglisi wanted to talk about a reality that many female attorneys face every day. No matter how much they’re paid or how much they accomplish, many women attorneys deal with misperceptions and slights based solely on their gender.

The bias shows itself in all sorts of ways, she says: A defendant refusing to be represented by a female attorney because he doesn’t think she’ll fight hard enough for him in court; a judge calling a female attorney dear, girl or honey or by her first name while addressing a male attorney on the same case as Mr.; a female attorney, while waiting for a trial to start, being asked by another attorney or a courtroom worker if she’s really an attorney of if she’s a court reporter, a paralegal or an interpreter.

“I’ve been practicing now almost 19 years, and I’ve been doing a solely criminal practice, so I’m in court a lot,” says Margot Moss of the Miami law firm Markus/Moss. “In federal court and in magistrate court in particular, there’s a practice where they let the attorneys in first and then they let family members and supporters in like five or 10 minutes later. I always get up to go in with the attorneys, and I am routinely asked — ‘are you a lawyer?’ I’m in that courthouse a lot, so I can’t help but think it is somewhat of a gender bias because my male colleagues don’t experience that.”

A. Russell Smith, an attorney at Smith & Haine in Jacksonville, says all attorneys — men and women — have a responsibility to speak up when they see gender bias, even when they know that saying something probably won’t make them “the most popular person in the lawyer’s lounge.” He adds that lawyers also need to speak up when they witness racial bias or other types of discrimination.

“All lawyers need to be treated with professionalism, and if you witness one lawyer treating another lawyer unprofessionally, you should say something,” Smith says. “My first associate was a female, and I had to go to a judge and tell that judge to stop calling her ‘honey’ in court. I shouldn’t have had to do that, but she had told him to stop calling her ‘honey’ and he thought it was cute.”

Puglisi agrees that both men and women need to speak up when bias occurs, but she would like to see women take the lead, particularly when they think they might be losing work because of it.

“We cannot be seen as victims,” she says. “If I think for some reason that I’m not getting a case that the white males are getting then it’s upon me to call up one of those white males and say, ‘let me work with you on a case.’ Solve it that way and say, ‘please, next time you have anything, consider me.’ I should, instead of complaining, try to do something about it.”

Miami attorney Sabrina Puglisi organized a session titled “Women Lawyers: The Crap People Think, but Won’t Admit” at an annual meeting of defense lawyers.

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