Harry's Gang: Sexism lesson learned after snarky response to email
April 9, 2021
I had an interesting experience the other day. In an email with a fellow attorney over settling a case, the attorney told me that her client's previous offer was no longer on the table, because "unforeseen circumstances" had made it impossible for her client to honor the agreement. So, even though we had agreed on a settlement, her client was backing out. That was annoying, but it happens.
But in this case, I had a little more information than opposing counsel had. This was the third lawyer the client has had on the case, which is usually a sign that they are the problem, not the lawyer. I had been dealing with her client for several years, and I knew she was likely bluffing, or outright lying, when she agreed to the offer. So, I was not too surprised when she backed out. Her attorney, on the other hand, seemed to be sincerely surprised, and was quite apologetic. I responded to her email by saying that I understood; that her client had a long history of dishonesty and shady behavior, and that I had never really believed her client would honor the settlement. I should have stopped there. But it was 9 p.m .; I was a little insulted, and felt snarky. So I continued: "But it's sweet you believed her," I wrote. I hit send and immediately wished I had not written that last part.
I expected a response from the other attorney, and I got one. You should know that this attorney is very accomplished; she's a partner in a boutique law firm in the Twin Cities area, has high credentials and, most importantly, has never treated me with anything but respect and professionalism. I never doubted her motivations and trusted her integrity; she was simply representing the other side, that's all. Lawyers deal with opposing counsel all the time, and most of us can separate the work from the personalities.
But part of her response truly surprised me. Naturally, she pointed out that my response was snarky and unhelpful, but then she went on to say she found my "It's sweet that you believe her" comment to be sexist.
Sexist? I was shocked. I never intended my comment to be sexist, and I was certainly sorry she had interpreted it that way. This attorney did not seem to be one of those people who sees sexism in every negative comment, so I took her criticism seriously and asked myself how this could be sexist. I would have made the same comment to a male colleague, if the situation called for it, I told myself.
Then I reviewed my thoughts. This attorney is very accomplished and has been a female her entire life, so she's probably encountered sexism a lot more than I have. I'm a white, middle-class male. What do I know about sexism? Aside from having three smart, older sisters and a strong mother, none of whom would tolerate sexism from me, I have little to no experience identifying sexism. That attorney probably has, and recognizes it when she sees it. So, she's probably right. My saying it was "sweet" that she believed her client probably was sexist.
I asked my older sisters about it last weekend, during our weekly family Zoom call. They agreed my comment was snarky and condescending, but disagreed that it was sexist. My niece Reshma, though, disagreed with her mother and aunts, and told me that she could easily see how the attorney felt it was sexist. Reshma is about the same age as the attorney, and is well educated and accomplished herself.
"Men are sexist all the time and most of the time don't even realize it," she said. "I believe them when they say they didn't mean to be sexist. But it's an unconscious bias that you don't even recognize unless you've been the victim of it countless times."
This story ends just fine. I apologized, told the lawyer I was wrong to say it, and she accepted my apology. But a part of me is concerned that she will always think, in the back of her mind, that that attorney from Esko was a kind of a jerk to her. When I mentioned that to Reshma, she said, "Don't worry. She will. We think that about a lot of you men out there."
I guess I'll be more careful in the future.