Don’t Call Me Sweetheart

Mar 26, 2017, By Wendy Lazerson

I recently had the honor of representing a well-known national corporation in a jury trial in southern California. We prevailed overwhelmingly, as you may have guessed, as had we lost, I might be inclined to try to forget the entire experience. My courtroom team was all female, including paralegal, lawyers and client. We opposed a team composed of two men and two women.

Having started in the legal business at a time when I was often the only woman in the courtroom, it was extremely satisfying to be leading a team of strong and smart women. But, much to my chagrin, I soon realized that some things have yet to change; an opposing lawyer referred to both me and members of my team as “sweetheart.”

The first time it happened, I ignored it. The second time, the comment was directed at my associate, and I had had enough. I reminded counsel that the Rules of Professional Responsibility prohibit such condescending terms and that he could be subject to sanctions if he continued.

While counsel controlled himself from that point forward, sexism reared its ugly head from the bench, and in that situation, it is much more difficult to speak up. First during jury selection, our female team noted that the judge was immediately excusing from jury duty men who mentioned they had meetings they could not miss. Yet women who told the judge they worked hourly and did not get paid if they did not report to work or who mentioned real hardship with childcare were not excused by the judge. I had no choice but to do the right thing: I told the judge what I thought I had observed. Thereafter the judge stopped excusing the male executives.

Do I think the judge or opposing counsel were malevolent or intentionally engaging in sexist behavior? No. However, the experience reminded me that we must continue to stand up for what is right and to educate the members of our profession.

At the end of the day, I am convinced that our understated, sincere and hardworking team won over the jury because we were not bombastic; we did not insult the opposing counsel. We did not scream at the opposing witnesses. We used our brains and our brawn (a three-week trial takes stamina) to succeed.

We all must continue to promote each other and to point out when our brethren (and sisters) fall back to misguided behaviors of the past.

Wendy M. Lazerson is a partner in Sidley Austin’s Palo Alto office and head of the Northern California Labor and Employment group.