Women on the Front Line

Just turn on the TV and there are the female lawyers in skimpy skirts and sky-high heels, more concerned with their messy personal lives than legal matters. In real life, women who practice trial law are hardworking, focused and articulate—carving out a niche in a legal specialty still dominated by men.

Women attorneys at the top of their game in the courtroom can be found across Alabama. These plaintiff and corporate lawyers are working in a variety of areas from medical malpractice and mass tort litigation to wrongful death and cybercrime.

Anne Marie Seibel—a partner and litigation attorney with Birmingham-based Bradley Arant Boult Cummings and a member of the teams who secured a $2.8 billion verdict against HealthSouth Corp. CEO Richard Scrushy—says a trial takes an exceptional amount of preparation and “surgical” execution. And credibility is essential for success in court for both genders.

According to the Alabama State Bar, there are currently 5, 142 female lawyers practicing in Alabama. In 2005, there were just 3, 448 female lawyers practicing in the state. Yet the number of women trial lawyers in Alabama is comparatively low. Women practicing trial law in Alabama say they rarely see their female counterpart in courtrooms. 

Except for two paralegals, Seibel says she was the only woman in court during her most recent big cases. “It’s still very unusual to see a woman in the courtroom, ” explains Seibel. “As a young attorney, I would be assumed to be the court reporter. People are still trying to figure us out.”

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Seibel, who is raising two young children with her husband, a research physician, says that there is a retention problem with female trial lawyers because of the unpredictability of litigation.  “I’ve been asked in the courtroom, ‘Who is taking care of your kids?’ Men aren’t asked that question.”

Not surprisingly, male trial lawyers also are less scrutinized about their appearance in court.  Seibel co-chairs a committee of women litigators for the American Bar Association, and when members meet, the topic of appearance regularly arises. “We’ll ask each other ‘What kind of earrings do you wear [in the courtroom]?’ and ‘What about stockings?’ Men don’t have these discussions.”

In 2002, a federal judge advised both male and female lawyers to adhere to conventional dress that’s “reserved, conservative and authoritative, ” although he acknowledged this to be a trickier proposition for women. Seibel says some judges frown upon female trial attorneys wearing pantsuits in the courtroom. 

“No matter what type of courtroom style trial lawyers develop, the more experience they have in court the better their skills become.” – Rebekah McKinney

“I am a true believer that clients expect their lawyers to look like lawyers… they expect to see you in business attire rather than golf attire or jeans, ” observes Rebekah Keith McKinney, a shareholder with Watson McKinney in Huntsville and past president of the Alabama Association for Justice. She practices complex litigation, class actions, personal injury, wrongful death, civil rights, employment discrimination and wage disputes.  Her father, Herman “Buck” Watson Jr. also is a shareholder in the firm.

“You also need to be able to go into the courtroom at the last minute if called, so in our office we do not have a casual day for our lawyers…, ” McKinney continues.

“Additionally, as a female it is important not to dress in a distracting or revealing manner, especially when trying cases in front of a jury.”

Like many other women trial lawyers, Tamela Esham sticks to neutral-colored suits in the courtroom.  Men’s attire is simpler, she says, because they can wear a suit more than once to court, and change their shirt and tie. If women wear the same outfit more than once, she says, the jurors will notice. 

“I have what I call my ‘trial clothes, ’ brown, blue, black and gray suits that are nice but not distracting; you can’t wear bright, flowery dresses or anything frou-frou, ” explains Esham, a partner with Armbrecht Jackson in Mobile who focuses on medical and pharmacy malpractice defense. Esham worked as a registered nurse and earned a master’s degree in nursing before entering law school at age 30. 

“Getting ready for trial can take 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week.” – Tamela Esham 

Photo by Dennis Holt

Despite concern about appearance, female trial lawyers we spoke with agree that it’s important to be yourself, with the same persona in court as out. A person who tends to be shy, introverted and thin-skinned is unlikely to pursue a career as a trial lawyer.

Lisa Darnley Cooper, a litigation partner at Hand Arendall in Mobile who specializes in employment and business litigation, says lawyers are “on stage” in the courtroom, but there’s no acting involved in effective courtroom advocacy. “You have to be yourself or a jury will see right through it, ” she says. “The foundation for an effective courtroom style is confidence.”

Preparation is vital to obtaining confidence, she says, yet even when you are thoroughly prepared your confidence can waver. And in those circumstances, you might have to “fake it until you make it, ” Cooper adds. “I used to look at some men and wonder why I didn’t have the innate confidence they seemed to have. It took me awhile to figure out that there is not a huge gender difference on this topic. There’s a personality difference, yes, but not a gender difference.”

No matter what type of courtroom style trial lawyers develop, the more experience they have in court the better their skills become, says McKinney, who agrees that a judge and jury will always see through deceptive or disingenuous behavior.

There is much less “show business” involved in the law than is popularly believed, asserts Lucy E. Tufts of Mobile-based Cunningham Bounds, whose practice includes cases of product liability, industrial accidents, vehicular accidents, premises liability, medical malpractice and fraud. But while there is no need to act when the facts are on your side and you are passionate about your client’s case, she says, you do need a “poker face” in trial. 

“A lawyer’s poker face is the extent of acting that goes on in the courtroom.” – Lucy Tufts

“If a particular witness’s testimony is harmful to your case or if an expert’s demonstration goes awry, you can’t let on that something is amiss, ” Tufts says. “I think that a lawyer’s poker face is the extent of acting that goes on in the courtroom.”

At 5 feet-2 ½ inches tall, Michel Nicrosi says that she cannot dominate a courtroom with her size and voice, so she dominates with competence and preparation. A former federal prosecutor, Nicrosi tried cases in courts nationwide where she was often the only woman lawyer, which, she says, wasn’t necessarily bad because it got her noticed. In 2010, she ran for state attorney general in Alabama, the first woman to do so.

Nicrosi is now a defense attorney with Jones Walker in Mobile, where her husband is also an attorney.  She successfully defended Paul Hamrick, the former chief of staff to Gov. Don Siegelman, in one of Alabama’s most significant public corruption trials in recent years. A big football fan, she says being able to discuss the sport on the job is a plus. “I joke that my knowledge of football has gotten me farther than the law.”

Julia Anne Beasley also has learned to be herself in court, a lesson she learned from her father and law partner Jere Beasley at Beasley Allen in Montgomery. “It helps to learn from each other, but to develop your own style in the courtroom, ” says Beasley, who specializes in personal injury and is listed in U.S. News & World Report’s 2012 Best Lawyers in America. 

“The courtroom is the only place where real life and serious—sometimes deadly—problems can be heard and resolved by a jury.” – Julia Anne Beasley

Beasley is not alone when she admits to getting nervous before a trial. “I think all lawyers feel that way because that trial is my client’s only opportunity to tell his or her story in court and let a jury decide their case, ” she adds. “The courtroom is the only place where real life and serious—sometimes deadly—problems can be heard and resolved by a jury.”

Even the most seasoned trial attorneys feel anxious before a trial, adds Tufts, because there is a lot at stake. So it’s natural to feel apprehensive. “With respect to speaking to a jury, I simply conduct myself with honesty and integrity, ” she says. “A lawyer’s credibility is of the utmost importance, as a jury will not trust you if you are deceitful or unprincipled.”

A female advocate can be especially beneficial for a case involving female health issues, says Danielle Mason, an associate in mass torts with Beasley Allen, who has been involved with hormone replacement therapy litigation with all women clients. She believes a woman advocate may better empathize with the clients and perhaps make a stronger connection with the jurors.

But as Mason points out, advocacy skills are shaped more by personality than gender.  There are many different approaches lawyers can take in court, and she says she has seen the same ones executed by both men and women.

Every lawyer, of course, has his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses. Some are inclined to be aggressive and others prefer a more laid back approach, Tufts contends.  Some are dramatic, while others prefer to be understated. Some methodically walk the jury through the evidence, while others let the jury sort it out. 

“You have to be yourself or a jury will see right through it.” – Lisa Darnley Cooper

Photo by Elise Poché

“Whether you are male or female is not predictive of these personality attributes or communication styles, ” she says.

Cooper agrees that a successful courtroom outcome goes beyond gender. “Strong trial advocacy requires that you take the case you have, the facts you have, and the clients you have, and then figure out how to win.”

The preparation and the trial itself can be detrimental to family life, says Seibel. But the upside is that your children see that a woman can succeed in any profession she chooses, says Seibel, who found herself recently on the 100th day of an arbitration.

To make the long stretches more tolerable, she keeps live orchids on her desk and elsewhere in her workspace—maybe a reminder of the meticulous nature of court work. 

“Real courtroom life is slow and often tedious, ” Mason says. “TV gives people the impression that cases can be wrapped up from start to finish in a matter of days or weeks, and not months or years. There also aren’t as many ‘gotcha’ or ‘aha’ moments as TV would have you believe.”

The courtroom environment is serious and can be “slow, unpredictable and exciting as you experience both high and lows, depending on testimony and rulings on objections, ” Beasley says. 

Despite the long and unpredictable hours that trial law requires, parents, in-laws and supportive spouses step in to help care for their children. And they have the financial means to hire help when needed. Nicrosi, for example, has a nanny to help care for her 11-year-old son. 

“If you can’t dominate a courtroom with size and voice, dominate with competence and preparation.” – Michel Nicrosi

“There has never been a more appropriate phrase to describe what I do than ‘It takes a village, ’” admits McKinney, whose parents help look after her three young sons. Mason has two sons, age 5 and 15, and says she’s still trying to find a balance between work and family, but couldn’t manage without her husband and help from her parents.

The time trial work can take away from a young family is the big reason there aren’t many female trial lawyers, says Esham. “I believe that’s why I don’t think I’ve ever tried a case with another female lawyer, ” says Esham, who has grown step-children. “Getting ready for a trial can take 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week.”

As mothers, women sometimes face additional challenges in the courtroom. Tufts has tried three cases while pregnant. “There are a myriad of physical consequences to pregnancy—morning sickness and exhaustion among them—that make trying a case more difficult during that period of time, ” she says. “These challenges, however, are only temporary and can be overcome.”

Although women are still scarce in Alabama courtrooms, judges and juries are getting more accustomed to their presence, McKinney believes. Cooper notes that more women are going to law school today than men, but the percentage of women attorneys at law firms started to drop in 2010, and the trend continues. “There have been countless articles written about the decline of women practicing law, ” says Cooper, “and I suspect that it is due in large part to the fact that work-life balance is hard to maintain in this profession.” 

Advocacy skills are shaped more by personality than gender. –Danielle Mason

Tufts says the status of women in the law has improved markedly over the last 50 years, but remains a work in progress. According to the National Association of Women Lawyers, women comprised 47 percent of the law school population and 45.9 percent of all graduates in 2009-2010. Yet the same study found that women constitute only 25 percent of non-equity partners and barely 15 percent of equity partners in law firms.

These numbers have not improved over the six years that NAWL has been tracking this data, Tufts says.  “I hope that law firms, both in Alabama and throughout the country, continue to address this disparity and make changes that will positively contribute to the advancement and equal treatment of women in the workplace.”

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

By Jessica Armstrong

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