President’s Column, 20 VTBJ, Spring 2020-#05

Authorby Elizabeth Novotny, Esq.
PositionVol. 46 1 Pg. 05


No. Vol. 46 No. 1 Pg. 05

Vermont Bar Journal

Spring 2020

by Elizabeth Novotny, Esq.

Many years ago, I received performance feedback from a supervisor. The feedback was positive so I was feeling pretty good. As I was leaving, the supervisor offered one final thought: You might try to be more feminine. I stopped in my tracks because he had unintentionally just delivered a gut punch. I managed to calmly ask him what he meant by that comment because I wore make-up, jewelry, dresses and heels to work and in court. He explained that some of the male lawyer/adversaries --the “shorter ones” he noted--were intimidated by me. He posited that their reaction was due to my court room presence, height and self-confidence. He finished by explaining that he debated whether to share this with me but in the end opted to share in the event I wanted to incorporate the feedback to become a more effective litigator. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no idea what to do with the advice because it was not really about being more feminine it was about making male adversaries feel less threatened and better about themselves. I told him that I can’t change who I am and noted that this was more their issue than mine. A good intellectual answer that belied the fact the “advice” dinged my confidence, raised some self-doubt and just plain hurt.

There is a lot to unpack from that incident which sadly was not an isolated one in my 30 + year career. But for today, I simply offer it as an example of what I and other women experience in our profession. While court room presence, confidence, command and even well-placed emotion are often regarded as positive qualities among male trial lawyers, female trial lawyers exhibiting the same behavior receive mixed reviews. Many women and notably female lawyers are keenly aware they are subject to a different standard: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If women are too assertive they run the risk of being perceived as strident and abrasive. If women are not assertive enough they run risk of not being taken seriously or lacking command of their work.

In a recent study using juries, the authors concluded that female attorneys expressing anger during closings were regarded as “significantly less effective” while male attorneys expressing anger in closing arguments were regarded as “significantly more effective”. (Salerno, J. M., Phalen, H. J...

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