Though outward expressions of discrimination against certain types of attorneys in court may have diminished over the years, each attorney, litigant, juror and judge who enters a courtroom brings with them their own set of implicit biases.
According to Tammy Meyer, an attorney with Metzger Rosta LLP in Noblesville, ageism and sexism are among the most common biases people bring to the legal process. Some attorneys prefer younger judges, while some judges want to hear arguments from more experienced attorneys. A female client might turn to a female attorney for legal help, while some clients have refused to work with women at all.
The list of potential age and gender-related biases could go on, but Meyer, who led a session Friday on “Dealing with Ageism/Sexism in Court” at the Indiana State Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Conference, said understanding the factors that lead to such biases is the first step toward resolving any internal prejudices legal professionals might hold.
Among the most influential factors that could create sexist or ageist prejudices are media factors, including mainstream and entertainment media, Meyer said. From the perspective of traditional news coverage, she pointed to the example of Marcia Clark, the infamous prosecutor from the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Though Clark was a talented litigator, news coverage tended to focus on her hairstyle or her domestic responsibilities, topics that didn’t dog her male counterparts, such as Johnny Cochran or Christopher Darden, she told a session in French Lick.
Similarly, Meyer showed a clip from the television show Boston Legal in which an elderly senior judge is portrayed as confused, incompetent and possibly struggling with memory loss. Rather than revering senior judges for their knowledge and experience, Meyer said the TV clip suggested elderly legal professionals grow more incompetent with age.
In her own experience, Meyer recounted numerous instances in which she was discriminated against in the practice of law because of her gender. For example, early in her career, a client refused to allow her to argue his case because she was a woman. A senior partner who had previously supported her plan to argue the case withdrew his support, and Meyer was forced to step down from the case, even though she had done the prep work.
But her experience is not unique. When asked if they had ever been discriminated against because of their gender, roughly half of Meyer’s audience answered with a “Yes.” A similar response was given when she asked about age discrimination, based on either being too young or too old.
However, attorneys do not have to maintain the status quo when it comes to implicit and explicit bias, Meyer said. They can instead take proactive steps to level the playing field. For example, rather than laughing at sexist jokes, she urged the audience to speak out against such behaviors.
Further, Meyer encouraged attorneys young and old to develop mentorship relationships that work in both directions. While older attorneys can help those just starting out to learn the ins-and-outs of practicing law, younger attorneys can guide their more experienced counterparts through new technologies that can help them stay competitive in today’s world, she said.
But even with those efforts, implicit and explicit biases will never disappear, Meyer said. To deal with that reality, she offered simple advice – maintain the ability to laugh it off.
“Sometimes I think we have to use humor to deal with some things that may be offensive, but the person isn’t trying to be offensive – they just are,” she said.