Does A Lawyer's Gender Really Matter?

Does A Lawyer's Gender Really Matter?

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When potential clients canvas lawyers to retain them for their legal matters, certain questions are foreseeable and some others may catch you off guard. Common queries such as:

  • Do you specialize in criminal, family, etc. Law?
  • What are your legal fees and do you offer contingency agreements?
  • How many years have you been practicing?
  • What is your ratio of wins and losses?

can easily turn a five-minute conversation into a full out billable consultation. However, an initial phone call may depart from pleasantries when the potential client asks a variation of the following question: Are there any female lawyers at your firm? Having engaged with the Lawyer'd community, most women are of the position that a request for a female lawyer is a compliment. And in many cases, we champion this preference. But what if it is not a compliment? Does a lawyer's gender really matter?

Well, it depends.

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Withinn the personal realm of attorney-client relationships, gender might matter to a client. A client's trust might be grounded in his or her ability to relate to the lawyer. As such, there is a conscious pursuit of sameness resembling Frank Kafka's community theory, in which you tend to gravitate towards the people you believe have synonmous experiences. Consequently, it is unsurprising, for example, that women tend to retain female family lawyers on the pre-conceived notion that, on the matter of custody a woman can litigate from a position of empathy. In other practices of law (criminal, commerical, etc.) gender-preference might be prompted by personal comfort. A client may retain a lawyer based on whom he feels he may be more open and honest with. This is particularly evident in sexual assault cases; a woman might be more comfortable sharing relevant information with a female attorney and a man, with a male attorney. Beyond the scope of personal preference, there is no material difference betwen a male lawyer and a female lawyer in relation to legal practice. Personal and institutional prejudice may persist, but at the fundamental level, a male and a female lawyer have an obligation to practice the law within the realm of the code of ethics, good faith, and legal education.

Generally speaking then, if a client insists on retaining a female lawyer, sure it can be construed as a compliment. However, the same sentiment might also have a negative connotation when you take into account the gender of the potential client. Consider the two most common examples:

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  1. In Family law, it is very common for men to request female lawyers. The implication is that women are perceived as more aggressive on matters regarding the institution of family and are likely to be more successful in family law cases.

  2. In corporate law, both men and women tend to favour male lawyers. This preference has been attributable to the idea that men are more business-minded, conniving, and accessible.

Choosing a lawyer based on gender stereotypes may hinder the evolution of the practice of law and keep both men and women from occupying spaces that are otherwise labeled as inhabitable. There are female attorneys who break boundaries in corporate law on a day-to-day basis and male attorneys who have enough empathy to litigate family matters effectively (not that one's empathy is a threshold for successful family litigation).

Ultimately, a client's preference boils down to what the individual lawyer is willing to tolerate and accept... after-all, it is a bilateral process. But we should be intentional in our efforts to debunk the gender stereotypes that continue to frame the practice of law.

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