‘You don’t look like a lawyer!’: 6 ways to navigate professional and corporate spaces
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick.
Recently, I watched the very popular Netflix movie Red Notice, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If you’re unfamiliar with The Rock, his name is well-earned. He is a former professional wrestler, and he has huge muscles to show for it. In the movie, he plays an FBI profiler who specializes in fine-art theft. An Interpol agent introduces him to a museum curator who is about to be a victim of a major theft.
Before the introduction, the curator asks the Interpol agent, “Who is this, your bodyguard?” After the introduction, one of the employees remarks that he doesn’t “look like an FBI profiler.” The profiler’s response: “Yeah, I get that a lot!” This scene reminds me of so many interactions I’ve had as an attorney in my 12 years of practice.
How many times have you heard, “You don’t look like a lawyer!” How do you feel when it happens? What’s your typical response?
Ask most women and minority lawyers if they have had this experience, and they’ll reply with a resounding “Yes!” As a matter of fact, women and minorities hear this phrase a lot in many other professions, including professors (I am currently one), engineers, doctors (my best friend gets this all the time), scientists and many other male-dominated fields that require training, education and expertise.
It’s easy to become annoyed, upset or indifferent when this happens repeatedly.
Let’s first briefly explore why so many use this phrase so casually. As a Black woman lawyer, I have heard this phrase from other women, Black people and other minorities. Most embarrassingly, this happens to many lawyers in the courtroom as deputies, judges and others in positions of authority either outright proclaim that you don’t “belong” there or ask you to “prove” your right to exist in the lawyer space by providing identification and a bar card.
I’ve heard countless stories relayed on social media from my former classmates and colleagues recounting all the times in which they were mistakenly (or purposely) referred to as the court reporter or paralegal. Even in the age of Zoom hearings, one mentee of mine put “Attorney” as her first name so that there could be no mistake. And yet, opposing counsel continued to refer to her as the court reporter and claimed to be waiting “for counsel to appear.” Many lawyers must deal with questioning monthly, if not weekly, from judges, opposing counsel, clients and the public. Nevertheless, we have to continue to show up and do a good job for our clients and advocate to meet our legal and ethical obligations.
To avoid the burnout of constant microaggressions and keep a good sense of humor in the face of bias, I’ve come up with some witty responses to have ready the next time someone throws this phrase casually your way. Yes, I understand it’s a systemic problem we must continue working on, and it can have some real consequences. But at the end of the day, you have to figure out how to navigate these professional and corporate spaces and keep your confidence and enthusiasm for practicing law.
So what should you do if this happens to you? On to the suggestions.
1. Be bold
Smile, and let them know that since you are a lawyer, then “this is what a lawyer looks like.” You do not have to say it sarcastically, just as a matter of fact. Keep your head high, offer them your business card and take up space. You earned your place in the bar, so there’s no need to explain your presence to everyone who doubts that.
2. Be curious
Ask them, “What does a lawyer look like?” And honestly, wait for the response. They may be caught off guard and suddenly realize that they let their own biases and stereotypes lead the conversation. Or they may point out something different than you expected. Lawyers dress much more casually these days, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. But be prepared: You might get a really honest answer. Then you can be bold and explain that lawyers come in all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities.
3. Be informative
Let them know that since the law has slowly become more diverse, more lawyers will not fit the typical “white, older male” archetype, but we all had to meet the same standards to become one. Some people need education, given that only about 5% of lawyers in the United States are African American, and the statistics are even lower for Asian American and Native American lawyers.
4. Be calm
Sometimes ignoring the person is the best response—especially when that person is engaged in microaggressions. This technique is especially helpful when dealing with people in authority like bailiffs, court personnel and judges. Introduce yourself as the attorney, identify which client you represent, and state the purpose of your presence. You may have to repeat it a few times, as I had to once with a particularly skeptical bailiff. Remaining calm will keep you in good graces with anyone else viewing the interaction.
5. Be humble
Try not to get defensive; sometimes, people are just surprised. When I used to go to Polk County, Florida, for hearings, I would meet elderly Black residents in the hallway or while waiting for the docket call in the courtroom, and they’d ask if I was a lawyer. I was wearing a suit, holding my case files and looking serious about my business. This was a proud encounter for them, and they’d congratulate me and let me know how proud I made them. For them, it was rare to see a Black lawyer. The first Black lawyer of Polk County, Arthenia Joyner, is still practicing law (and by the way, she is the longest practicing African American woman in Florida’s history with 50-plus years). So, it’s no surprise that a certain generation of Black residents quickly notice when a Black lawyer enters the room.
6. Be wary
I’ve also had encounters with people looking for free legal advice, so they casually ask if I am a lawyer to start the conversation, not out of pride, disdain or bias—but looking for free advice. I’ve had to respectfully turn them down and let them know the best way to get advice is to schedule a consultation with a lawyer after they’ve gathered information. I’d also have the websites for the local legal aid providers memorized to refer them there for free advice if they qualify. As lawyers, we must be extraordinarily cautious about giving out free advice; it can cost you dearly in the long run because it can lead to confusion, should there be a misunderstanding about whether you were offering legal advice and whether you were truly undertaking to represent the individual when you engaged in the conversation.
Take these suggestions for what they are worth. Some may appeal to you more than others or may take some practice. But overall, I’ve found that the best way to deal with microaggressions is to decide not to take them personally. I’ve learned I can’t control the actions of others, but I can control my reaction. That’s made all the difference.
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick is an associate professor at the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She teaches criminal law and constitutional law and assists graduates with bar preparation. She is the founder and director of Diversity Access Pipeline, a nonprofit organization that runs the Journey to Esquire Scholarship & Leadership Program, blog and podcast to promote diversity and create access for law students. She is the author of Finding Joy in the Journey to Esquire: A Guide to Renewal for Lawyers and Law Students, Bar Exam Beast Mode: Maximize Your Mindset to Beat the Bar! and several children’s books celebrating diversity and encouraging mindfulness in children.
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