I just spent a lovely morning immersed in the intricacies of how a gas heating system is constructed and how a fire-cause-and-origin expert goes about the process of forming his opinion. As I mentioned, I am very excited to be handling a fire lawsuit as this was a type of law I had hoped to become more involved in at my last firm.
And of course, this has gotten me thinking about the subject of gender when it comes to specialties within litigation. When I first started at my former law firm, I was assigned to the Employment Litigation practice group and Legal Malpractice Defense. Our firm (which did litigation only) was only 20% women attorneys, and all of the women attorneys did employment litigation. I was a little concerned at first that I was being assigned to some sort of pink collar ghetto, just because it was weird that every single attorney in the group was a woman (except for the leader of the group) and it was weird that every woman in the firm was involved in Employment law.
Employment Litigation was, however, a good fit for me in terms of my skills because a lot of employment cases hinge on credibility issues, just like my criminal law cases. Employment Litigation also involves a lot of fact investigation and informal interviewing of witnesses which was also similar to what I had done as a prosecutor. My concerns were also somewhat alleviated by the fact that Employment Litigation is a high paying practice area and that the legal issues involved are both complex and interesting. I also wound up doing work on construction law cases, fire and explosion cases, and some commercial litigation, but Employment Litigation always remained the area in which I was most associated.
Nonetheless, the heavy female involvement in Employment Litigation niggled at me the whole time I was at the firm. While many of my colleagues assured me that Employment Litigation is a perfectly respectable and valuable area in which to practice, somehow it seemed more petty to be dealing with the question of whether a supervisor called his employee an “old lush” (a typical employment law scenario) than whether there are grounds for rescission of a construction contract. On the other hand perhaps I was the one being sexist by seeing less value in a practice area dominated by women.
Another issue: My firm may have preferred to have women attorneys represent companies accused of discrimination because female representation subtly counteracts the impression that these companies are hostile to groups that traditionally suffer discrimination. (I should note that very, very few of our cases involved allegations of sex discrimination, however.) In one particular instance, my male boss told me that he wanted me to handle a mediation in which our client was going to try to settle a claim brought by a young woman. My boss thought the plaintiff was more likely to be receptive to my efforts to settle the case because I was myself young and female. I didn’t really mind that tactic because -- hey, when you’re trying to achieve a particular result for your client you try to use every ethical tool at your disposal. On reflection, however, it is troubling when one’s value to a case is explicitly tied to one’s gender.
One also questions why more women (at least in my firm) weren’t assigned to deal with more technical areas involving specialized knowledge and forensic evidence. I certainly would have been most pleased to focus on construction litigation or fire-and-explosion cases (and my fire-and-explosion mentor even requested that I be assigned to him), but somehow that never happened. I think there are a variety factors that may have played into my not working on those more “masculine” types of cases, so I don’t want to be too hasty in yelling sexism. But, in all honesty, I can’t help but wonder whether sexism may have been a factor too.
I was ready, willing, and able to deal with the “harder” types of cases and expressed that to all the right people. But somehow I was always been steered towards the “softer” types of litigation, despite my stated interests and enthusiasm. Although obviously my experience is purely anecdotal, it leads me to question the notion that women are naturally more attracted to certain fields while men are naturally more attracted to others. Now I haven’t fought tooth and nail to handle particular types of cases. I am not so enamored of fire-and-explosion-law that it’s breaking my heart not to be specializing in it. Nonetheless, I would have been perfectly happy to develop a specialty in this area.
NOTE: I have not come to any firm conclusions about my experience. Nor am I claiming that this is more than just my experience and impressions.
SECOND NOTE: At my current firm, I practice primarily in the area of defending police departments, particularly with regard to alleged civil rights violations. I believe I am the only woman in my state who defends these types of cases. This type of law also dovetails nicely with my experience as a prosecutor but I think it is perceived as more "masculine" perhaps because our clients are all police officers, which is an overwhelmingly male dominated profession.