Storytime + Open Thread. Why I Stopped Wearing a Suit to Practice Law.

I have been feeling quite uninspired to write on the topic of Crohn’s and chronic illness lately, but this has happened before and seems to come and go.  What is there really to talk about without being redundant when it’s all kind of been said before?  If anyone has any original, interesting and/or nagging thoughts on this or any topic I hope they will feel free to comment below.  It may or may not inspire me to write more.  In the meantime, my thoughts are again with the residents of the Big Island of Hawaii many of whom were already displaced by the ongoing 3-months long lava eruption there and who now find themselves staring down the barrel of a hurricane.  Of course, many of these evacuees and displaced residents are chronically ill on top of everything else.  I hate to think of the effects of torrential rains, high winds and widespread coastal flooding on an active lava flow.  Godzilla vs. Mothra comes to mind.

And many of the existing lava evacuees, including chronically and terminally ill evacuees, are still living in tents, in cars, or sleeping on the ground.  A lot of them have reportedly had it with existing in shelters and because of that will not be returning to one anytime soon, even if they do reopen them for the hurricane (most of the shelters that were opened for lava evacuees have closed by now even though thousands of people reportedly remain displaced and even though the lava is still actively taking homes).  I’ve heard that there have been evacuee suicides and I don’t doubt those reports.  The seriously chronically ill live increasingly diminished and unimaginably stressful lives on their best days and natural disasters make everything worse for them and everyone.  I know how they feel, having been left homeless and ill myself following Hurricane Sandy.  The physical, emotional, mental and financial strain of being displaced and ill at the same time is truly not to be believed.

So far I have written very little in this space about my experience as an attorney so I thought I would share the following example of what it was like to be a young female practicing law.  For a bit of context on my work history and so-called ethic, as a young girl I could not wait to be grown enough to work, I thought the concept “going to work” and everything it entailed was exciting and for some reason I really believed I would thrive there.  I had already worked raking leaves, babysitting and doing other odd jobs for pay for years by the time I got what I considered my first “real” job at 15 stocking shelves and cashiering at a regional five and dime called Ben Franklin’s and I absolutely loved it…for about 2 weeks until I literally couldn’t stand being treated like subhuman garbage by my supervisors anymore.  I remember clearly that all of the supervisors were men, 2 of them were 19 or 20 and believed that the cashiers were there to sexually service uh, “date” them, while 2 more were middle-aged greaseballs.

Working in a Ben Franklin’s in the 80s was probably a lot like working in a bowling alley with only somewhat fewer nachos and even more smoke if that’s possible.  The tan and maroon smocks closely resembled bowling shirts, and the long, shiny aisles were perfect for “bowling” and were actually used as such by the stockboys when they were bored uh, supposed to be working.  The boys smoked in the aisles, rested their lit cigarettes on the shelves and ground the spent butts on the floor.  The stockgirls smoked in the breakroom (or not at all) swept up the aisles (and the stockboys’ cigarette butts) and spent their days off making mixed tapes for them and “dating” them and the younger supervisors too.  As if any of these boys deserved it.  They didn’t.

Anyway, after what was probably 2 weeks of work, when I finally snapped and told one of the greaseballs that I could do without his condescension (LOL) he told me to stop using “50 cent words.”  He probably didn’t even know what the word condescension meant.  Hearing it from a 15 year old girl clearly filled him with rage.  For my part, I didn’t understand what he meant by “50 cent word” — I was only 15 afterall — and I was rattled and confused that he had so abruptly changed the subject.  Shortly after that I was either fired or quit, I don’t even remember which.  I had several short-lived menial-type jobs after that and continued trying until I decided I was better off going to college.

Of course, the whole time I was in college (and law school) I worked at short-lived menial-type jobs too.  My experience as a “worker” never changed much even as I became more and more educated (and aged) hoping that someday, somehow my education and experience (and age) would earn me the benefit of the doubt and serve as prima facie evidence that I was not a dumbass and/or that I was worthy of a modicum of respect.  It never did.  I tried so hard to earn it but respect was never forthcoming and that didn’t change when I became a lawyer.  This will be a short story, I think.  No point dragging it out.

My first job practicing law was representing clients at Workers’ Compensation hearings which if you haven’t been to one pretty much resemble cattle-calls.  Claimants normally did not meet with their hearing attorney beforehand and different attorneys represented the same client from one hearing to the next; claimants would sit on long benches resembling church pews and wait for their attorney to find them, usually by standing in the front of the room and loudly calling their name.  I would stand there in a freshly pressed suit, cradling an armload of files, yell out a client’s name and see who responded.  Then I would walk over to them, introduce myself by telling them my name and that I was there on behalf of the law firm they had hired, and explain to them what was about to happen in the hearing because surprises in the hearing room are bad, very bad.  I asked them probing and often personal questions and answered theirs, reviewed medical and other evidence with them, prepared them for testimony, things like that.

And over and over, the damnedest thing kept happening: after we had been conversing for some 5 or 10 minutes, which is a very long time at a cattle-call type hearing where the hearings themselves frequently only lasted a few minutes, my client would politely ask “So when is my lawyer getting here?”  They weren’t being deliberately disrespectful and weren’t rude about it or anything, they just legit thought I was a paralegal or secretary or something, something very much less than a credentialed and licenced attorney.  Can you imagine?

Granted, I had at least half a dozen things working against me in the “appearing respectable and educated” department.  I was young (and young-looking) and relatively inexperienced, I was female, and as 75% genetically white trash I just did not — because I could not — come across as anything else.  I’ve never been able to pretend my way out of that — the legacy of my commoners’ genes combined with the socialization (physical and psychological grooming) of my originating class which is 100% white trash on my dad’s side and 50% on my mom’s (yes this is a real thing, sorry if that offends but I’ve lived with it all my life).  But consider this: if a clean, groomed, young-looking man in a suit came up to you at your Workers’ Comp hearing and said he was from the law firm you had hired to represent you, would you or anyone ever assume he was anything other than a young-looking attorney?  Would they?  If a 30-year old man in a white coat and stethoscope came into someone’s hospital room and told them they were dying would anyone assume he was the janitor (or a nurse)?  I’m just asking.

Clearly, the status-signalling of my suits wasn’t working for me and I was sick of wearing them anyway — they were uncomfortable, unflattering and high-maintenance.  In short order I stopped bothering to wear a suit to work.  I started wearing clothes that were nice-looking but relatively comfortable and launderable — usually black or another dark neutral pants and a sweater or jacket — and began introducing myself to my clients as an attorney before I did or said anything else.  Literally, I would say to them “Hi, my name is (name redacted) and I’m the attorney from (firm name redacted) and I will be representing you at your hearing today.”  I never had a problem after that, but I did notice that quite a few of the other women attorneys from my firm and others weren’t wearing suits to their hearings either.  I never asked why.

I worked there for exactly 2 years before my firm instituted an “all lawyers must wear suits to hearings” policy which was rumored to have started because women attorneys not wearing suits to hearings wasn’t fair to male attorneys who were unable to “dress down” and still look respectable.  Of course, any or all of the men could’ve worn short-sleeved shirts and man-sandals to their hearings and never been mistaken for paralegals (or janitors) and I actually saw that happen once when a male attorney was called in from a day at the beach to handle an emergency hearing on the fly and I shit you not was actually praised as uber-professional and coddled for his sacrifice.  Speaking of coming in from the beach, at some point I began seriously contemplating rowing a boat to work and swimming in the Bay during my lunch hours — which is probably one of the best, most interesting ideas I’ve ever had and would’ve greatly increased my quality of life and decreased my stress — but I couldn’t work out the logistics of hair, makeup and suit-wrinkles.  Sure, I passed the Bar Exam on the first try but that riddle I could not solve.

I had a few more lawyering jobs after that one and paid out of pocket for a few additional wardrobes, including a closet-full of new suits, because my health was starting to decline and my size and weight fluctuated, and because each workplace had a different “corporate culture” that was always mostly expressed in fashion, especially for women, but one thing never changed: I always had to explicitly introduce myself to my clients as an attorney no matter what I wore, looked like, or said, or did.  The End.


One thought on “Storytime + Open Thread. Why I Stopped Wearing a Suit to Practice Law.

  1. Geez I almost forgot these. Once I did an entire hearing in front of a judge, with a court reporter, opposing counsel and everything and my client didn’t ask me until after the hearing when his lawyer would get there. He literally believed that a paralegal or secretary was handling his hearing for him! That’s how much my clients could not believe I was an attorney despite all the evidence that I actually was one. And several times I stood up in front of the room and called my clients’ names and they didn’t respond so they were marked as a no-show and their hearings were rescheduled. When I got back to my office my supervisors were ASKING ME WHY I WASN’T THERE because the clients were calling the office saying that no ATTORNEY ever called their name. It took several of those before I realized what was going on and I’m lucky my supervisors even believed me when I told them that I was there calling the clients’ names and they didn’t answer. Of course there was proof that I was there because I had signed in as the attorney of record if they ever needed or wanted to check. That is how much my clients simply could not believe what was right in front of them and they could not believe I was an attorney despite all the evidence. What the fuck.

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