Nanda Davis of The Davis Law Practice will be a panelist on the first panel of WLSO’s Symposium. This panel is titled “Power in the Law: Who will follow a Strong Woman?” and will take place from 2:00-3:00 on October 30th. She has graciously written a post about her experience as a female lawyer and about some lessons that she has learned. For another very interesting article by Ms. Davis, please see https://www.justipedia.com/2/10590/clients/making-her-case-helping-women-be-heard-in-a-male-dominated-legal-system.
Two years out of law school, I moved to a small legal community in Roanoke where I knew almost no one and threw out my shingle. My areas of practice, criminal and divorce, are adversarial and male dominated. When I first started out, I was terrified of someone “not liking me,” and struggled to project confidence. I have had a prosecutor slam his books on the table when I challenged him and multiple lawyers have tried to exclude me from conversations with judges. Once, I interrupted opposing counsel who was both talking out of turn in court and not accurately portraying the facts. He raised his voice and said “You will not interrupt me again, Ms. Davis, while I am talking.” How do I deal with male lawyers and judges who may not take me seriously? And how have I learned to stand up for my clients?
Growing up, girls often enjoy the praise they get from teachers for not interrupting in class. But I am doing my client a disservice if I let the other side define the issues. If I wait patiently and politely while the other lawyer tells the judge what he thinks the issues are, we are no longer discussing my client’s concerns, but the concerns of opposing counsel. It is equally important that my male colleagues hear that I am interested in the law and am taking my cases seriously when we talk, whether that is casually over lunch or in a formal conference about a case. Of course, interrupting does not mean that I am rude, or that my voice tone changes, and I make sure my comments have substance. I’ve learned to trust myself enough to think that what I have to say matters and it is usually received that way. I no longer wait for an invitation to talk.
Don’t take no as the final answer:
When a judge says he is inclined to rule against me, I try to rephrase my argument. When a clerk tells me something cannot be done the way I feel it should be, I ask why or brainstorm alternative ways to accomplish my goal, rather than accepting his or her say as the final word. My clients deserve to have a lawyer who doesn’t just give up. Of course, I often seek the advice of lawyers who have more experience, to know when I am being reasonable.
Practicing law is not a popularity contest:
Judges always let me know when they have heard enough and that’s when I sit down, but they don’t get angry with me for advocating for my client. Opposing counsel knows that I have to represent my client just like he does. If he acts angry when I disagree with him, he’s either putting on a show for his client or he’s a jerk. Either way, wondering whether opposing counsel or a judge is unhappy with me is a waste of emotional energy. If I do my job then my clients will appreciate it and my colleagues will respect me.
I have come a long way in getting over my fear of “getting in trouble” for interrupting, for challenging someone, or wondering whether someone still liked me. I now put my focus where it is needed—on zealous advocacy for my clients.