June 16, 2014 by Melanie L.
There is no place for “girls” in the courtroom.
Several years ago, someone accused me of being a “girl” in an open courtroom, on the record! My accuser expelled a derisive snort accompanied by a dismissive wave of her wrist to punctuate her ad hominem attack. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. And for what purpose? I was extremely prepared for this case. . . and I was winning. I did not deserve the condescension enveloped in the delivery of that address. It should never have happened.
Because courtrooms remain bastions of old-world formality, even in this new era of dressed-down billionaire CEOs. Counsel who may have known each other on a first name basis for decades or who socialize regularly off the clock suddenly switch to prim salutations once they have set foot on the legal equivalent of hallowed ground. Judges, adorned in black robes, are greeted with a respectful, “Your honor.” Likewise, all lawyers should be called by his or her title followed by a last name . . . or “Counselor” works, too.
Because attorneys are never girls. It does not matter if an attorney put herself through law school by moonlighting as a dancer, or if she looks radiantly younger than her physical age, or if her age includes the suffix “teen” and she Doogie-Howsered (what, that’s not a verb?) her way through law school like Kathleen Holtz to become a litigator at the age of 18, or if she is simply female. None of us are “girls.”
Because using “girl” in friendly, informal exchanges as a demonstration of affection and not of superiority is not enough to justify a wider use. Just last week, by way of example, my colleague held our floor’s security door open for me. Worried she might get impatient, I hustled. But, as soon as I started to jog she said, “Girl, I got you.” Though I relished the collegial nature in which that word was offered, it is a slippery slope to carve out exceptions.
Because that one word might be stifling our collective advancement. There are plenty of peer-reviewed studies out there that suggest our speech can negatively impact our mindset. If even in friendly settings, the word “girl” connotes immaturity, inexperience, or naiveté, isn’t it quite possible that hearing ourselves addressed as “girl” could have devastating effects on our ability to “lean in” like Sheryl Sandberg? Or maybe it’s possible that some men, the ones from which #notallmen are quick to distance themselves, are propelled forward in their nefarious plots by a mindset driven home with condescending appellations? After all, if I were to ask you to imagine a grown man being addressed as “boy,” what images or context comes to mind?
Because if we take ownership of how we are addressed in both formal and casual settings, we can create a monumental shift in attitude. In conjunction with other efforts, we can make gains pushing past the glass ceilings that held our forbears back. Help me make this change.