No excuse for patronising pet names

ADLS’ Newly Suited Committee is inviting recently admitted lawyers to get in touch if they need some information and guidance about professional and practical issues relevant to those new to practising law.

This week, the Committee helps #notadoll with some advice on dealing with inappropriate and/or sexist comments from senior lawyers or opposing counsel.

“Dear Newly Suited

I have been working in law for almost a year now and have been dealing with some inappropriate behaviour by other lawyers. A couple of examples are where one of the seniors in my office keeps calling me ‘Doll’ and the senior associates either laugh along or look awkwardly the other way. More recently, a lawyer on the other side of a matter told me that he ‘was surprised a lawyer would behave in this way, especially a female’, when I sent an email that set out to enforce my client’s legal rights.

I’m not sure what I should be doing differently. I want them to treat me as a professional, but I don’t want to be seen as easily offended. Please help!

Thanks in advance

#notadoll”

The Newly Suited Committee responds as follows:

“Dear #notadoll

We are sorry to hear this has happened to you, and agree that the behaviour you describe is inappropriate. Unfortunately this, and much worse, sexist behaviour seems to be an issue that a number of young female (and male) lawyers face.

Firstly, and most importantly, it does not sound like you are doing anything wrong. Pet names in the office such as ‘Doll’ are patronising and, if used by a senior, can be demeaning. You should not have to change your appearance or act in a manner that is more masculine to be respected as a lawyer, and your gender is not relevant to the legal rights of your client.

It sounds as if some members of your office and opposing counsel are not aware of the effect of their inappropriate behaviour, or are choosing to behave inappropriately towards you. Therefore, we encourage you to address this behaviour if you believe that is the best course for you to take.

There is no right or wrong way to address this behaviour, and the level of formality is up to you.

If you would like to address the behaviour of your senior informally, you can simply ask them to stop calling you ‘Doll’, as you think it is inappropriate, and explain that it makes you uncomfortable.

If you think your senior is not aware of the inappropriateness of giving you the nickname ‘Doll’, one way to address this is to pretend you did not hear and ask them to repeat this. You could also make a joking comment in response, such as ‘I actually prefer Honey-muffin’ or ‘You must have forgotten, my name is …’, to inform them you do not appreciate the nickname, whilst maintaining the relationship.

If you would like to take more formal action, you should be aware that workplaces usually have policies that deal with the expected standard of behaviour its employees (including senior employees) should meet, and will often have procedures for complaints regarding inappropriate behaviour. If the senior is acting inappropriately, particularly in a sexual way, this should be addressed by your employer.

You may want to seek advice or support from a friend outside of work, or seek advice from another lawyer. You may also wish to discuss the behaviour with a trusted colleague, as often inappropriate behaviour is directed at a number of people, who might want to support or join any formal complaint. We also encourage you to record these instances (perhaps by an email to yourself as that provides a date stamp and creates a timeline) in the event the behaviour is repeated or if you do decide to take more formal action.

In respect of inappropriate behaviour by another lawyer, we encourage you to be direct. You could respond to the lawyer asking them to explain what they mean by their comment, and asking them to inform you what relevance you being a female has on the matter. Whilst law can be adversarial, there is no excuse for rudeness, in the form of sexist remarks, and this behaviour could be in breach of the rules of conduct. Remember that, ultimately, such behaviour reflects poorly on them, not you.

Finally, we encourage all readers to be aware of inappropriate behaviour and, if they see it, to ensure they are not complicit. Seniors in the office who hear another senior (or even a client) calling a junior ‘Doll’ are best placed to tell this person they should behave in a respectful and professional manner, and that such nicknames are not respectful or appropriate. Fostering a culture of respect in any workplace requires everyone to act in a way that supports this culture, including condemning inappropriate behaviour.

From the ADLS Newly Suited Committee.”

The ADLS Newly Suited Committee was established last year with a mandate to support and mentor those entering the profession. Members of the Committee range from recent graduates through to those with five years’ PQE, from junior barristers to solicitors at firms both large and small, and from Auckland to other centres such as Palmerston North and Hamilton.

ADLS’ Newly Suited Committee invites questions and comments from those new to the profession all around New Zealand on any issues they may be facing. Questions can be submitted by emailing newlsuited@adls.org.nz and will be kept anonymous. Responses will be published on a regular basis in LawNews.

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