Lawyer Mama, a 30 something female law firm attorney, expresses her exasperation when an older male to whom she’s introduced by her boss (a firm partner) mistakes her for a secretary. While Lawyer Mama’s wrath is justified, she also unfairly directs her anger. As I see it, manner in which Partner introduced Lawyer Mama caused the confusion to begin with.
As Lawyer Mama describes, she attended a networking event with a Partner with whom she works closely. After the lunch, the Partner took the opportunity to introduce Lawyer Mama to others at the event, at which point the offending incident took place.
As we were making our way through the crowd, Partner introduced me to several industry players. Everyone seemed pleased to meet me and, while no one ever looks forward to needing to consult their lawyers, I am sure that I will be working with some of them in the future. Then Partner introduced me to an Older Gentleman who placed himself in our path. Partner made some flattering comment about how I generally “keep him out of trouble.” Polite chuckling ensued and then Older Gentleman proclaimed that he could use someone like that because he could never “remember how to work that pesky teleconference feature on his phone.”
Seems to me that the Older Gentleman’s reaction flowed from the Partner’s introduction of Lawyer Mama as someone who “keeps him out of trouble.” Come on – what kind of an introduction is that? Personally, I’ve always thought that lawyers make those kinds of remarks either are either engaging in false self-deprecation or trying to make themselves look good for respecting “the help.” When I introduce the younger attorneys whom I’ve mentored or hired for contract assignments, I always try to mention some attribute of theirs that will make them attractive to a potential client or stimulate additional conversation.
Why didn’t Partner say “This is Lawyer Mama, our firm expert on XYZ” or “This is Lawyer Mama who has taken the lead on developing our ABC practice from the ground up.” Had Partner introduced Lawyer Mama that way, her status would have been clear from the beginning and the confusion that she gripes about would not have ensued. Moreover, Partner might have helped generate more business for his firm by mentioning matters that Lawyer Mama handles that would interest prospective clients.
Lawyer Mama’s complaints also remind me of why women in solo practice rarely suffer these same indignities. When you introduce yourself as “I’m Ms. X, and I’m a lawyer with my own law firm” you tend to make your status crystal clear right from the beginning. I realize that women working at law firms can’t claim ownership of a firm, but they can claim ownership of the work they handle at their firm.
There are lots of Older Gentleman types still out there in the world. You can complain about their neanderthal attitudes, but you can’t avoid them. Nor would you want to, because some might eventually become clients. But what you can change is the way you present yourself to the world. So why not eliminate any confusion about your status at the outset and introduce yourself the way that you want others to remember you?