The One Thing You Should Never Call a Female Attorney

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June 16, 2014 by Melanie L.

“Girl.”

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.

 

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Philadelphia’s City Hall

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24 thoughts on “The One Thing You Should Never Call a Female Attorney

  1. saroful says:

    My favorite is the partner that refused to hire male associates or secretaries because “I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking to them like I speak to you.”

    Like

    • Melanie says:

      No! Tell me that didn’t happen !!

      Like

    • When I was a loan officer in my early 20’s I submitted a short “editorial” to the major radio station in Pittsburgh, Pa. about this very same subject!! I ended up presenting the editorial on the radio, too. (Of course, it aired at 3 a.m. and the only person I knew who ever heard it was a woman who worked at the library and obviously had insomnia).

      The incident that provoked it was when one of the male loan officer coworkers called to me and several other women who were leaving the bank, “Bye, girls!” I had a B.S. and a good job, was married — and he still didn’t think twice about how his words came off. Ugh!

      That was 20 years or more ago and I’d hoped things had changed…. guess not.

      Like

      • Melanie L. says:

        Ugh. Thanks for sharing your story. Luckily this only happened in the courtroom one time but it bothers me that it was a woman!

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      • saroful says:

        I think… on calm, mature reflection, I think that many men think that “girls” is the feminine form of “guys” rather than of “boys.” Also “gal” is a truly horrible word.

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  2. Tina says:

    This made me think a minute. I cannot ever remember being called a ‘girl’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the ‘B’ word, though. I see your point.

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  3. Lance says:

    I’m so anxious about my 18-year-old daughter starting college this fall as well as entering the real world work force. It seems there’s a disconnect between those who have embraced feminism and those who live in the year 1954.

    Good post

    Like

  4. The situation is the same in India. I’m still a law student, but I too am not a girl!

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  5. I hear you. I think it’s time to break free of these labels and be recognised for what we can do, instead of who we are, especially in terms of gender stereotypes.

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  6. C.C. says:

    I’m with you on this one. The power of words and the influence of language is so very strong. Reminds me of this quote by George Orwell: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

    Like

  7. Linda Roy says:

    Yep. And I like that we’re on the same page this week. Woman Solidarity! I’ve often thought about using “girl” as a kind of greeting or salutation. I use it, and it’s endearing, but at what point do you use “girl” and when do you use “Lady”? Whenever I use “Lady”, it’s also meant in an endearing way, but I feel like I’m saying “Hey Lady!” *sigh* It’s all so confusing. So I’ll just say, Up top, Sista Friend! I feel ya’ on this.

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    • Melanie says:

      Back at ya, lady-woman-friend! LOL!

      Like

      • Argus says:

        For myself, I call ’em all “Ma’am” and it seems to work. A little politeness costs nothing (and with the ones carrying a chip or three on the shoulders it makes a sound opening gambit—the ball is in their corner).

        And I still hold the door open for ladies … actually, belay that, rather than let it flap some soul in the face I hold it open for all comers. Most are too stunned to even say ‘Thanks’ but that’s the way of it these days.

        Like

  8. Sam Merel says:

    Yes, yes, yes. I am a lawyer, and even after practicing law for six years, I am still amazed and horrified by the way that male lawyer treat female lawyers. This is not progress.

    Like

    • Melanie says:

      Luckily I was only called a girl in the courtroom once but there were several others things that made me feel like I’m fighting a constant battle in a former male dominated field. What experiences have you had?

      Like

  9. Natalie DeYoung says:

    As a woman professional, I cannot tell you how often I’ve been called “girl.” It irks me every time, but it’s hard for me to tell them to stop.

    Like

  10. Argus says:

    As a (SFX: insert a loud hooooick-SPIT! here please) male of the species I know (New Zealand—no room for wimpy thinking here) that I’m meant to challenge you to a miffed arm-wrestle, or at least a beer guzzling contest … but actually I’m in your boat. And have been since long before it became a social requirement to pay at least lip service to the concept of equality.

    Face it, some folks are a wee bit slow on the uptake. And some are genuinely innocent (just stupid). But as an intelligent person I imagine that if you so wished you could both have a real ball with the slimeball-offensive ones whilst being ‘naive’?

    Like

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Behind the Blog

Melanie L.

Melanie L.

I'm a happily re-married, full-time lawyer, and full-time mom raising two adorable vilde chayas (Yiddish: wild things) named Monkey and Peanut (not their real names!). I am often seen in public counting to three. In addition to parenting and writing, I also love photography, cosmology, evolutionary anthropology, and all things Israel.

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