If this story were a hashtag, it would probably be #onlybecauseI’myoungandfemale.
I am a law student, and this semester I am in a clinic, in which a fellow student and I work on cases under the supervision of an attorney. For one of our cases, I needed to get some court documents that weren’t available online, so I called the clerk of the relevant court to see if the documents were on file.
When I called, I mentioned the document that was my highest priority and the court did in fact have it. The clerk asked me how I would like to get the document. I asked if it was possible to email it to me and the clerk said yes, because he found it quickly and it wasn’t a long document, so he would scan it and email it to me, and he wouldn’t charge me for it, but I would need to email him first to remind him of my request and to tell him a joke, even if it was a cheesy one.
Put off by what I perceived as a lack of professionalism, but feeling that I needed this document because it would determine whether or not I could make a certain argument on behalf of my client, I sent the clerk an email, restating the terms of our agreement and letting him know that I owed him a joke.
He responded back with the document, teasing me about whether or not he had truly agreed to give me the document for free, reminding me that “the charge is one joke.”
Feeling further put off and worried that my supervising attorney, who was cc’d on the emails, would question my professionalism, but realizing that this clerk was someone we would need to interact with again and again (a so-called “repeat player”) that for the sake of the clinic I needed to keep on our good side, I replied briefly, thanking him for the document, asking a question about the document he had sent, and including a truly cheesy joke I found after googling “cheesy jokes.” He replied saying he liked the joke and that “it’s all about the effort.”
A few days later, I discussed the incident with an attorney who is familiar with the clinic’s work. I felt embarrassed about the transaction, but she stopped me, assured me that I had done nothing wrong, and asked me, “But do you think he would have asked for a joke from one of the male students in the clinic?”
The answer was no, and what followed was a great discussion about some of the hurdles young, female law students and attorneys face. A lot of those hurdles fall into the general category of others (generally men) not taking us seriously. The attorney I spoke to (who is herself young and female) shared several stories of how when she first started practicing, male attorneys would regularly tell her to smile or cut her off. Probably in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t meant to be condescending or paternalistic, but it is and it is so normalized that attorneys don’t even notice when they do it. I’m sure that’s what happened with the clerk; he probably thought nothing of asking a joke of a female law student who sounded young and was in need of help. I hadn’t realized in the moment that that was what was happening, but I knew instinctively that this wasn’t right – who asks for jokes when you are seeking court documents? – and felt relieved to know that my uneasiness was justified.
We talked about the struggle of keeping the peace with repeat players while maintaining professionalism (and dignity, frankly). We talked about how to handle similar situations in the future. For example, I could have ignored what he had said in the phone call and not mentioned the joke issue in the email at all. Or if he really pushed back, the clinic could have paid for a copy of the document. It’s worth it.
Although this was a very small incident with very low stakes, it raises so many issues that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn are relevant to professional women in all fields. How do we combat the misconception that we are not as competent as men just because of our gender? How do we challenge the expectation that we have to be bubbly and happy all the time – but if we are, we are also perceived as being less competent? How do we establish appropriate boundaries and demonstrate assertiveness without coming across as bitchy and closing doors? How do we express our femininity without feeling that we have to apologize for it? I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to digest this incident and explore these issues so early on in my legal career, but I imagine a lot of these experiences never get aired.
So that’s my closing ask: Let’s get that conversation started. Have you had a similar experience? I would love to hear from you and learn how you handled the situation.