Welcome back to The Pink Ghetto, a series where we take a look at some of the most appalling stories from one of the most sexist industries in the world: the legal profession. Today, we’ll take a look at the sexual harassment that’s pervasive within the law, in firms small to large. These are real emails and messages we’ve received from real readers.
When you see things like this happening, say something. Together, we can inspire the change necessary to stop this disturbing behavior from being so prevalent in the law.
I was sitting in a meeting with several male partners and a male associate. I didn’t know any of them; I was new to the case team. In the middle of the meeting, one of the partners got up from his chair, walked over to where I was sitting, pressed against the back of my chair so I couldn’t push back from the table, and started rubbing my shoulders. I was so utterly shocked I didn’t know what to do. I tried to shrug him off and push him away, to no avail. I didn’t want to make a scene since I was new to the team. No one else said a word. Eventually he went back to his seat. After the meeting, the male associate commented that I must be really close to that partner. I said I didn’t know him.
The partner started leaving me voicemails about how much he missed me and wanted to see me. I called the head partner on the case and said I couldn’t work under these conditions. He said, “It seems to me women have all sorts of ways of telling men they’re not interested. If he’s not getting the message, you must be sending the wrong message.”
The employment lawyers caught wind of my complaint but I refused to elaborate, figuring it would be career suicide. A week later, I was told I was being taken off partnership track, without explanation.
I worked at a employment and labor law firm with a handful of partners, each with their own special brand of demeaning sexism, and all of them should’ve known better.
The “young” partner was the touchy-feely type who was prone to give you impromptu back rubs, foot rubs, or hand rubs. He also wanted you to refer to him as your friend, rather than a boss, and made comments that probably even your worst friends would not make. Whether it was telling jokes about putting a female associate in a thong for the firm’s next ad or telling an associate who had put on stress weight that she must be good at blow-jobs or her boyfriend would have left her by now, he was massively inappropriate. Also, there was a period where he fell off the “wagon” and insisted on trailing young associates from the office to their post-work hangouts, proceed to get incredibly inebriated, and grind up against them and/or use their body parts to do shots (or even one time blow).
Finally, when one associate stuck along with his company for a number of years and wanted some sort of recognition, he promoted her to “partner” and then proceeded to tell everyone in the office it was a name change promotion and nothing more, that she had no greater authority than any other associate, and made a disagreeable noise when anyone even suggested she was a partner.
I was cleaning up my office after a big case and a partner came in and said, “I would love to clean your drawers… do you need assistance?” The same partner then told me I should wear stilettos every day, and he later put his hand on my knee at a charity event.
I was then told I was not partner material because no one takes blondes seriously. The partner believed blondes were too tempting and unprofessional, especially with a New York accent, and should be kept locked away in the library. When I asked for substantive reasons why I could not be partner, he had none — he simply said he would not support me when my name came up.
Several months into my first job as an attorney, the oldest partner at my firm began giving me work, taking me to lunch, and generally acting like a mentor. One day, he stopped by my office with a gift bag. He told me that on his most recent vacation with his wife, he found some interesting earrings that he had bought for me — because he noticed that I always wore “exotic” earrings.
I was mortified. I had no idea what to say, so I just accepted the gift and said thank you. I had just graduated from law school and the legal market was not especially good, so I was terrified of how my job and my reputation would be affected if I spoke to HR. Throughout my first year, he continued to regularly give me jewelry — all of which I kept in a little bag at home, unworn. Once I had accepted the first gift, I felt like there was no way to change course and reject the later ones.
When I got married, I decided to use that opportunity to ask the partner to stop. The next time he came to my office with jewelry, I thanked him for the kind gesture, but said that I was not comfortable accepting jewelry from a man who was not my husband. To my surprise, he resisted. He asked whether it was me or my husband who was uncomfortable, and reassured me that it didn’t “mean anything.” I reiterated that I was deeply grateful that he had thought of me, but simply did not feel comfortable accepting the gift. I will never forget what he said to me in response: “You know that you’re not the only one I give jewelry to.” (I never did talk to the other young female associates about this.)
In the end, he agreed to stop. And if that had been the end of the story, I could convince myself that he meant well but was simply a few generations behind the times. But from that point on, he never gave me work, nor even spoke to me.
I gave all the jewelry (about 10 pieces) to my mother, and asked her to give it away.
Do you have a law school or law firm story you’d like to see appear in The Pink Ghetto? Please email me with “The Pink Ghetto” in the subject line (or find me on Twitter: @StaciZaretsky). You will be kept anonymous. Submissions are always welcome!