I recently attended a mooting (mock trial) competition where the top four student oral advocates from almost every school across the country gathered to compete in front of judges across the country. At this competition, I met some of the best and brightest law students, that served as a population sample of Canada’s law talented law students.

At the reception, I had the chance to look around the room and mingle with these delightful students.While there were plenty more women at the moot competition reception than what I usually see at law firm receptions, there were very few minorities – and even less female minorities. Frankly, I was sticking out like a sore thumb at the reception, and I’ve come to realize that was not a one-time occurrence. I always get this feeling – of not belonging, of being the odd “man” out – when I attend law firm receptions.

Law is still a boys club. The stereotypical idea the old, Caucasian man who serves as the head of the law firm is a stereotype that actually exists. And while there has been some progressive change in the legal field for women, I’m struggling to see minorities and female minorities, rising to the ranks in law. Most of the lawyers I see in large law firms are men. I’ve been told by student recruiters at Bay street law firms that being a woman in law isn’t easy. One recruiter told me, rather frankly, that every child a female lawyer has puts her off the track to making partner at the firm by three years. Can you imagine? You return from having a kid after 6 months of maternity leave to be pushed back three years! I want to believe it’s because law is so fast-paced and ever-changing, but lets face it – I’m still quoting English law from the Privy Council from the early 1900s. It’s really quite astounding that 6 months maternity makes you, in the eyes of the law firm, less qualified to be a partner by three years.

Much of the discrimination is inherent in the legal justice system. It stems from “old school” judges or senior partners that aren’t used to having women in court, to the challenge with being accepted into law school as a minority student. At the last mooting competition I was involved in, a male judge told a female mooter on my team that she came across too severe, and told the female competition that he liked that she smiled and “was charming”. While the advice was well-intentioned, no male mooter received any comments about being too severe. Male mooters are never told that they were too aggressive, that they don’t smile enough, or that they aren’t charming enough. It’s okay for men to be that way, but not for females.

I understand that perhaps, some of the judges expect a certain demeanour from women, and I’m okay with playing the game – all lawyers have to play the game to work the system. The problem is when the game is based on gender stereotypes. Compare two examples:

Example 1:

In a lawsuit presented in front of a jury, a female lawyer represented the plaintiff, and a male lawyer represented the defendant. The female lawyer, decked out in her professional suit, stylish haircut, and manicured nails, began her submissions in front of the jury first, using a compelling voice and a projector to show slides. The male lawyer for the defendant watched this presentation closely, analyzing the faces of the jury members. Throughout the course of the plaintiff’s lawyer’s submissions, he concluded that the jury wasn’t connecting with her. He analyzed the their faces, clothes, hair and hands, and saw that the jury members came from “country life”. The female lawyer, with her perfectly coiffed hair and expensive business suit, was simply not relatable. And so, in an attempt to match the jury, the defence lawyer went outside, rubbed a little dirt on his hands, and came back in. When he began his presentation, he turned on the projector which his hands splayed across the top, such that the jury could see his nails weren’t manicured. By changing his demeanour and “toning it down”, he connected to their way of life, and thus, connected to the jury.

Example 2:

The young lawyer assessed the panel of judges in front of her. An all male bench with elderly Caucasian gentlemen. Revered. Kind. Intelligent. She headed straight to the bathroom, and stood in front of the mirror. She unclipped the bun so that her hair fell loosely around her shoulders. She applied a little more lip gloss, and put on pearl earrings. Softer. More Feminine. Accessible. Less Threatening.

Later that afternoon, the lawyer head into another courtroom, for another hearing. An all female bench, still Caucasian, but all female. Once again, she headed straight to the bathroom, and stood in front of the mirror. Her loosely falling hair was clipped tight into a bun, her make-up downplayed. The jewellery came off. Stronger. Intelligent. Less Feminine.

In both examples, there are complex tensions between gender, appearance, and credibility. The difference is: in the first example, the male lawyer is playing the game not based on his gender, but based on his intelligent analysis of the jury. In the second example, however, the female lawyer is changing her looks so that the credibility of her arguments, and her intelligence will not appear threatening or distracting. In order to be assessed on the strength of her persuasive arguments alone, she has to change her looks and style so that the bench will be more receptive.

I’m not trying to assert that the justice system is riddled with racist or sexist judges. The legal system is full of brilliant, intelligent judges who are critical of the imbalances in our justice system, and the imbalance in the population of legal professionals. But I can testify from experience that I grapple with example number 2 all the time. I know I have to “play the game” – that if I am dressed up, some female judges may think I am flaky, and if I am dressed down, some male judges may not find me “charming”. I’ve learned this from experience. I know that smaller changes in my appearance make a difference to different benches, and so I play the game so that the bench will hear my voice and passion and not be distracted by the way I look.

Perhaps by taking this approach, I am perpetuating the stereotyping of woman in this field. But as a minority female, I am struggling to make my mark in the legal field without using all the tools available to my advantage,(while sticking to ethical, professional, leadership-worthy conduct, of course). Law seems to be a boys club – I’m just trying to figure out how to get in it, and stir up some change. I want to be a leader, and I don’t want the constraints of the prejudice to hold me back.