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Legally Speaking


Issue: June, 2008
Author: Gay V. Woodhouse

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From the President . . .

Women’s Legal Forum

We all accept that men and women are different. In fact, for the most part, we enjoy and celebrate the differences. John Gray instructed us about the interpersonal communication differences in his book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. We learned that women like to be listened to but don’t like to have an instantaneous solution proposed. Women like to feel that they are being heard. Men like to resolve problems with a minimum of discussion or, as Larry the Cable Guy says, they like to “Get ‘er done!” Women get the job done too, but not necessarily by using the same strategy or approach.

How do those differences translate into the work world and more specifically, into the world of law, courtrooms and boardrooms? Both men and women have strengths and weaknesses in communication styles. How can we capitalize on the differences and not let less efficient means of communication create a barrier for us as women?

In April, the first Women’s Legal Forum was held in Lander, Wyoming, with over 70 attendees. The primary focus was on acknowledging, honoring and respecting the differences between men and women, while at the same time learning how we can enhance our effectiveness as women in the field of law through our communication styles. One of the basic premises is that the legal field continues to be essentially a man’s world.

Almost everyone in attendance could tell of a recent experience with a client or someone else in the legal arena who thought that because she was a woman, she must be the secretary or receptionist. Shortly after I returned from the Women’s Legal Forum, one of my own clients asked me about one of my female associates, “What is she – a secretary or somethin’?” I assured him that my associate is an attorney who had been practicing law for the past several years and was well qualified to assist him with his legal issue. Even though we do not dwell on it, we have all had experiences in which a client thought what we had to say was less valuable or less credible than that of a male counterpart.

In response to a statement made by one male friend, “I hope you aren’t teaching women to be men.” No, the purpose of the Forum was not to teach women how to be like men. None of the women or men that I know believe that would be a desirable outcome. As men and women, we complement each other; we complete each other in so many ways--at home, at work and in other activities. It is with that in mind that we can acknowledge and honor our differences.

Here are some examples of communication styles that some women may use which can lead to a less effective outcome:

  1. Answering a question with a question.

    Less effective:

    What’s your name?
    Uh, Gay?
    What do you want to be when you grow up?
    A lawyer?
    How do you feel about that?

    More effective:

    What your name?
    What do you want to be when you grow up?
    A lawyer!
    How do you feel about that?

  2. Using too many adjectives (verbal intensifiers) which can diminish or negate the point.

    Less effective:

    He was a really, really super speaker.

    More effective:

    He was an effective speaker.

  3. Using hedging or equivocal words.

    Less effective:

    I kind of think that this is very important.

    I thought I sort of believed that he was extremely effective.

    More effective:

    This is an important point.

    His presentation was effective.

  4. Rambling

    Less effective:
    “I was thinking that he should not go to that event next Tuesday, or maybe it’s Wednesday, but you know, whatever, one of those two days, because it will take time away from the amount of energy he has to put in to that other event, but then again, if he doesn’t go on Tuesday or whenever, he won’t be able to find out what that event was like and then he won’t know what he’s missing, so maybe it is a good idea for him to go after all, but I’m not really sure.”

    More effective:
    “I want to make two points, 1) there is a decision to be made about the use of time for events taking place next week, and 2) his attendance at two separate events will have an impact on the amount of time and energy he has to devote to other tasks.”

These are just some quick illustrations of some important issues that we addressed in terms of communication pitfalls for some women. It helped us become aware of the habits we may have developed which lead to less than persuasive communication strategies.

The atmosphere of the conference was casual, but the attendees were motivated to learn more about the differences between us and our male colleagues and how to address biases as we may encounter them toward the female gender in our profession.

From the beginning, the attendees were engaged, interested and seemed at ease talking about the challenges they faced in the profession as well as offering examples of techniques they used to address this bias head-on.

For those of us who became attorneys in the 1970s, we found that our modus operandi was simply to act as if there was no difference, put our heads down and try to outshine our male colleagues by working harder. Later graduates seemed to acknowledge that women had something to offer to the profession that our male counterparts did not have. Just a few of these assets are:

  • An ability to empathize with the client

  • An awareness and of subtle communication that takes place whenever we are talking to someone, which includes the body language, eye contact and other less obvious forms of communication

  • An ability to make people feel more comfortable talking about events which were uncomfortable or disturbing

This is not to say that men do not have these abilities, but they may come more naturally to women.

We learned that there are now some companies who won’t hire a law firm unless it has female attorneys on staff or as partners who can provide some or all of the legal work.

This was a very successful event and everyone in attendance encouraged us to continue it as an annual event. Many of the attendees volunteered to help plan for the next event.

Dr. Karen Lisko of Persuasion Strategies presented a very enlightening seminar on the ways in which we can undermine our message through patterns that I’ve outlined above. We may answer with a question mark on the end of the statement or say, “I think,” “sort of,” “kind of,” or use other phrases which tend to diminish the impact of our message.

Through research done by Angela Boyer, the clerk for the 8th Judicial District and Jaclyn Caballero, a senior at the University of Wyoming College of Law, we learned about the statistics for women on the highest courts of each state, which is still a very small percentage. We were entertained by Ruth Hargrove, an attorney from San Diego, about some of the more humorous differences between men and women in the profession which included an admonition based on her own experiences, “It isn’t the best way to start your career to have your first job as an attorney working in an office which hired you only because it was under a consent decree requiring it to hire women.”

We heard from Laramie attorney Amy Jenkins about the differences in negotiating techniques between men and women and learned some tips about how to negotiate successfully under any circumstances. Former State Bar President Cathy MacPherson told the group how important it was for women to save for the future and offered practice tips to accomplish a healthy long term financial future. She also described the various circumstances that affect the earning and retirement potential for women, for example, leaving the work force to raise children or care for elderly parents, earning less than male counterparts, and raising children as a single parent.

Veryl Miles, the Dean of the Catholic University of American Columbus School of Law, spoke to us about the challenges and opportunities for women in the law today in both the academic and clinical settings. She described a women’s tea that was held by the law students at the beginning of the school year to create networking and mentoring opportunities for incoming female students which had a tremendous impact on their performance during school and job opportunities upon their graduation.

Laura Dominic from Tsongas Litigation Consulting provided a video demonstration highlighting the differences between a male witness and a female witness to help us see the relative impact of the statements the witnesses made. One of the questions she answered was, “What should we wear?” (We didn’t have to ask the question.) She said we should wear what was comfortable and what we felt good wearing. She said that in general, whatever the attorney wears (regardless of gender) should not be so flamboyant or so casual as to draw undue attention to the clothes or the attorney. Whatever we wear, male or female, should not take away from our message, from the case or from the client’s cause.

I have gone through my entire career believing that women should not draw undue attention to the fact that we are different in any regard from our male colleagues. This forum gave me and the other attendees the opportunity to understand that by embracing and acknowledging the differences, we can be more effective for our clients in the courtroom, the office, in meetings and wherever else we are called to serve. Rather than ignore the differences, tackle them head-on, capitalize on the strengths, minimize the weaknesses and grow in the process.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to the wonderful planning committee: Hon. Marilyn S. Kite, Wyoming Supreme Court Justice; Cathy MacPherson, Past President of the Wyoming State Bar; Denise Burke, Assistant Dean at the UW College of Law; P. Jaye Rippley, Commissioner from the 7th Judicial District; Sharon Rose, Evanston attorney; Angela Boyer, Eighth Judicial District Court law clerk, and Jaclyn Caballero, a senior at the UW College of Law.

Thanks to our wonderful generous sponsors:

  • U.S. Federal Court Bar Admissions Committee
  • Long Reimer Winegar, LLP
  • Gay Woodhouse Law Office, PC
  • Holland & Hart LLP
  • The Richard Law Firm
  • Catherine MacPherson, P.C.
  • First American Title Insurance Co.
  • Laramie County Bar Association
  • Prehoda, Leonard and Janack, LLC
  • Sharon M. Rose, Lavery & Rose, P.C.
  • The Equipose Fund
  • Wyoming Reporting Service, Inc.
  • Michaels & Michaels

Thanks to Melissa Underhill and Trish Becklinger for staffing the event!

Thank you to the State Bar Officers and Commissioners who supported this Forum from the very beginning.

Last, but not least, thanks to our own spectacularly well organized and dedicated Sharon Wilkinson, Communications Director for the Wyoming State Bar, for advancing the idea for a women’s forum and for her critical work in planning, coordinating and making it a very successful event!

Copyright © 2008 – Wyoming State Bar