When I was the Deputy D.A. of my county, I was a big fish in a small pond. I appeared in the same courts every day. The judges and court personnel all knew me, as did the opposing lawyers. I think I was well respected. I’ve been told that my reputation was “fair, competent, and unafraid to try a case.” Also “stubborn and annoying” and “she has a friendly smile but she’ll screw you to the wall in trial.” (The last one’s a little crude but I kind of like it.) After I tried a number of cases, even some of the judges began to defer to my opinion on how cases should be run.
In addition, because of my position, I had power -- power to determine whether to bring criminal charges against a citizen, to decide what charges should be brought, to recommend a particular sentence, and to set policy for how others in my office would make those types of decisions. Obviously, there were limits on this power and I don’t want to overstate it, but it was power nonetheless. Every day, I fielded numerous phone calls, letters, and in-person visits from people who wanted me to exercise my power in different ways. These “supplicants” (as one of my colleagues jokingly called them) included victims, defense attorneys, probation officers, police officers, members of the public, the press, and others.
Obviously power corrupts. I did my best to make sure that I was not becoming heavy handed or unreasonable or cocky. I like to think that I exercised the power I had fairly, but I am sure some people would disagree. You can’t please all the people all the time.
I enjoyed learning how to wield power, but with power comes responsibility-- and sometimes strain. I learned how to listen to various people arguing vociferously for differing courses of action, decide what information was relevant and what could be discounted, apply my principles and values (within the limits of the law obviously), and then act decisively, prepared for the consequences. I learned how to sleep well at night and take care of myself, even though I was making decisions with sometimes momentous consequences in people’s lives.
One of the biggest effects my position had on me was on my bearing. I don’t think I ever became officious or obnoxious (like so many prosecutors) but I definitely walked taller and spoke more forcefully once I got used to my position. I took it for granted that people, including judges, would listen deferentially to whatever I would say. Once you develop that level of confidence, it’s hard to remember what it was like to be a brand new attorney who does not know where to stand or how to act.
But three years ago I acted on my craving for a larger pond and chose to become just another youngish lawyer in a large citified law firm (albeit a youngish lawyer with more trial experience than most). I am not in court as much any more because civil litigators go to court far less often than criminal lawyers. When I do go to court, I am often interacting with lawyers and judges who don’t know me. Just this morning at a routine scheduling conference, I was the baby in a group of five other lawyers (all over 60) and a judge I didn’t know. She (the judge) turned to me with a saccharine smile and said, “So are you a new member of the bar?”
A wierd thing happened then: I immediately felt transported back to when I was a brand new member the bar. All of those long buried feelings of uncertainty came rushing back to me. I was a little quieter than usual during the conference and, when I did speak up, I did so with a less authoritative manner than usual. It brought home to me what I’ve always believed -- that we instinctively act in conformity with how others expect us to act.
As a deputy D.A., I was expected to act authoritatively because of the position I held and the respect I had earned. So I acted authoritatively. Today, as a younger lawyer no one had ever met before, I was expected to act less authoritatively because of my age and presumed lack of experience. So I instinctively acted less authoritatively.
I am really rambling now and I didn’t mean to turn this into a feminist post, but of course, it now occurs to me how this idea plays into feminism-- are women naturally diffident and shy and uncertain (I think not) or do we often act that way because that has been the expectation of us since we were born?