Public Service Voices

Listen to Your Voice

By Leslie Savina, Northwest Justice Project

5/6/2008

It was not an easy hearing. This occurred many years ago, earlier in my career. My lovely client was living in her car with two toddlers; my idea of a living hell but preferable, to her, to living with her husband. He had beaten the living daylights out of her the week before and was now living the good life, warm and comfy, in their Delridge home. My client wanted him to move out so that she could live in their house, safely, with the children. She was bruised and battered, frightened, grieving the loss of her marriage and worried for her children. She had no money, but she had me: a free lawyer. And, some days, that’s as good as it gets.

Opposing counsel argued vigorously and effectively for her client, the husband, and I argued for mine. The judge ruled in my client’s favor. Opposing counsel and I put our heads together to draft an order, argued some more, reached an impasse and asked to speak to the judge again. And again we argued our positions and wrote and talked to our clients and wrote some more. Finally, we agreed upon language and we were able to present our order to the clerk who would take it to the judge in chambers for signature. I felt exhausted but delighted that my client would be safer for a while.

When I handed the order over, the clerk said to me, “I love to watch two women lawyers work together.” I was taken aback by her comment. “What do you mean?” I demanded to know. “Well, you know,” she smiled, “women just work differently than men. They know how to get it done.” Huh?

The clerk’s surprising observation stayed with me. Could it be true? And if it is true, is it a good thing? As a litigator, I certainly didn’t want anyone to feel that I was going to be a push-over in court because I was a girl. I became gender-vigilant, wondering and watching, trying to decode whether gender does make a difference in how we lawyer. At risk of being drummed out of the feminist movement (and asked to leave the North Seattle Ladies Poker League), I will venture to say that women and men problem solve and communicate differently. And this is a good thing.

Since that long ago hearing (when women lawyers were more of a rarity in court) I’ve had many opposing counsels. The ones I’ve enjoyed the least – okay, the ones who have made me seriously consider a career move – are the young women who learned their trial practice skills watching “Conan the Barbarian” re-runs. There seems to be a prevalent myth among recent, female, law school graduates that to be successful in a male-defined field, you had to litigate like a guy. This was loosely translated into being aggressive, uncooperative, curt, and (did I mention?) rude. (As we all know, this is where the myth fails. No one succeeds as a lawyer without an abundance of professional courtesy.)

As those of us with four digit Bar Numbers know, hard-ball lawyering backfires magnificently (regardless of gender). Practitioners of the Conan-the-Barbarian method of litigation are not happy people. They have ulcers because they know, when the call comes, that their opposing counsel is now so upset it will not be a cordial conversation. The mere ring of the office phone makes their blood pressure skyrocket. They are bored at the office because no one refers cases to them due to their nasty litigation tactics. And they are poor because their clients fire them for needlessly litigating and running up fees.

So learn, as young lawyers, whether you are women or men, to use the gifts you were given and do not try to be something you are not. This is not difficult. By all means, if you have a booming baritone, use it . . . judiciously. But if you are soft-spoken, be well-spoken and confident and you will be heard, perhaps better because those to whom you speak will listen more attentively. Or, if you’d just as soon drink bleach as go to court, use your superior negotiating skills to reach an agreement benefiting your client. If your extemporaneous speaking skills are mono-syllabic, use your excellent organization skills to write out arguments for every contingency. The court will appreciate your preparedness.

Years ago, my opposing counsel and I were able to cordially and civilly work out the terms of a difficult and challenging order. She and I were both moms (a very special skill set) and had a lot of patience, expectations grounded in reality, an ability to listen thoughtfully and egos which had already been thoroughly smashed by our children. Although neither of us had the courtroom prowess of “LA Law” or the rapier wit of “Boston Legal”, we were both focused on the best outcome for our clients and we used what we had to get the job done.

Law school is a bio-sphere of big expectations, immense pressure and more stress than students will experience at any other time in their lives. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize, remember why you are there and the gifts you have which got you there. To paraphrase my civil procedure professor (who was actually speaking about jurisdiction): go with what you’ve got!

About the Author

Leslie SavinaAfter a brief career selling coffee beans at Starbucks (when there were only two Starbucks in the entire world) Leslie Savina began her legal career as a paralegal at the Schweppe Firm. Aspiring to an office with a window, Ms. Savina attended law school at the University of San Francisco, graduating in 1983. She was in private practice (in a Seattle office with a very nice view) for many years before becoming the first staff attorney for the Domestic Violence Legal Fund, a program providing civil legal services to low-income domestic violence survivors. Ms. Savina recently joined the Northwest Justice Project as a statewide advocacy coordinator.t.


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