Is a “Sweet Personality” an Essential Job Function for a Lawyer? Only If You’re a Woman

pigtailsLawyers have an image problem.  We’re up against some serious stereotyping issues.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked, “What do you do,” and replied, “I’m a lawyer,” only to be met with good-natured giggling.  It happens a lot–especially on the weekends when I’m not wearing a suit and I look like a “normal person.” 

I also hear, “You’re too nice to be a lawyer.”  What does that mean, really?  Is there actually a “niceness” qualification to practice law?  I don’t recall that being mentioned when I went to law school.  Nor do I recall there being a question about my ability to be “sweet” on the bar exam.

Apparently, I didn’t take the same exam as the managing partner of Cohen Ponaini Lieberman & Pavane, an intellectual-property firm in New York.  A female attorney who was terminated from the firm has filed suit against the firm for gender discrimination and retaliation.  According to her complaint, the attorney was told that she would never make partner because the male partners were “uncomfortable” with her.  She alleges that she was reprimanded for being insufficiently sweet in her dealings with a paralegal.

The court has ruled that the alleged comment is enough for the case to proceed.  In its opinion, the court wrote that the comment, if made, is sufficient to demonstrate that the partner had stereotyped women as “sweet and non-aggressive” and that the former attorney did not fit that stereotype.

As reported by the ABA Journal reports, the firm stands by the termination on the ground that the attorney was “insulting and unprofessional” in her dealings with others and that she’d had numerous personality conflicts with numerous staff members and other lawyers.

I suppose that she could have been a royal pain to her co-workers and staff and, also, not be a very sweet person.  It’s sort of implied, isn’t it–that you’re probably not seen as being sweet if you can’t get along with others.  Just a guess.

So did the managing partner make a mistake in his choice of adjectives?  If he’d called her a royal pest, there’d be no gender-discrimination claim.  If he’d called her something less flattering–a jerk, for example, he’d also not be getting sued.  But, if he’d called her the “b-word,” that would be a different story, wouldn’t it?

I’m not sure how this lesson could be incorporated into supervisor training, though.  Do we need to compile a list of bad names that don’t evoke gender bias?  Well, it’s an idea.