Criminal Law, The Profession

Stereotypical portrayals of female lawyers hurt profession

By Randy O’Donnell, Associate Editor

As female lawyers continue to “transform" their profession, it’s time for the media to follow suit and end the stereotypical portrayals of women litigators, and depict more accurate, “empowering” images, Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser tells

Presser, principal of Presser Barristers, delivered that message during the 4th CLA Women in Criminal Law Conference in Collingwood, Ont.

During her hour-long presentation — Women Criminal Defence Lawyers: Myths, Media, Reality — she discussed those portrayals in film, television and mainstream media from the 1930s to the present, and how they have negatively impacted the public perception of women as lawyers.

“It demonstrates the ongoing depiction in the media that perpetuates physical and emotional stereotypes of women in the law that are less than ideal,” Presser says.

“The most pervasive underlying message is that the law really isn’t a place for women.”

She says historically, female lawyers in films and television pay a heavy toll for their career choices, often sacrificing morals or ethics to succeed. Many leave the profession for their family or to save their marriage.

The characters are most often judged on their appearance — or the clothes they wear — and suffer a “downfall because of professional miscalculations, serious emotional problems, sexual transgression, or all of the above," Presser says.

She quotes from an article by widely published American law professor Stacy Caplow entitled Still in the Dark: Disappointing Images of Women Lawyers in the Movies.

“Women do not really belong in the legal profession. Even if she is spunky and good at her work, a woman lawyer is riddled either with self-hatred or self-righteousness. She induces jealousy, engages in self-sacrifice, and simply cannot have both professional and personal identities,” Caplow writes. “Moreover, she is either suckered by some shyster or in love with the prosecutor, and in any event, cannot truly succeed without the help of a man. ... Some very traditional messages are sent. Women lawyers who try to be independent or champion the cause of other women screw up their personal lives, and when they realize this, sacrifice their careers for marriage or family."

Presser cites multiple examples of stereotypical and damaging depictions — early films such as Portia on Trial and The Lady Objects in which promotional materials use the tagline “Modern Portia admits being a failure as a wife,” to describe the female lawyer who is defending her husband against a charge of murdering “the other woman.”

She discusses more contemporary movies such as The Jagged Edge, where the lead female lawyer character sleeps with her client, and The Big Easy, where the lawyer sleeps with the target of her investigation into police corruption.

She also highlights A Few Good Men and The Accused, which play on the theme of female lawyers needing to be cold-hearted to be successful.

Presser also highlights some of the most successful television programs of our time:

L.A. Law

"Ann Kelsey — the lone woman partner at the main firm in the show — is married to another partner at the firm. Once this couple decided to have a family, we don’t see Ann lawyering anymore. Ann is a litigator, and once she is trying to become a mother, we don’t see her in the courtroom," Presser says.

"Ann’s storylines become all about adopting a child, losing the adoptive child back to the birth mother, and then getting pregnant, giving birth and mothering. Although her husband, Stewart, is a more soft and nurturing character than Ann, and also a partner at the firm, the automatic assumption is that Ann will be the primary caregiver for the child."

Ally McBeal

“Ally is obsessed with romantic love and is full of anxiety over the fact that she has no husband, no kids and encounters relationship roadblock after relationship roadblock. Again — a cautionary tale about how a career for women in law is incompatible with domestic life and happiness," she says.

Boston Legal

Presser says the show illustrates one of the major themes that often emerges — the successful female lawyer as being caustic, vindictive, nasty, and cold.

"The woman lawyer is portrayed as giving up her 'feminine' or warm-hearted, soft side in order to 'make it' in law — like the 'Squid' on Boston Legal who is called the squid because, the squid is apparently the only animal that can kill a shark. She becomes ruthlessly ambitious and is prepared to do whatever it takes to win the case or advance within the profession,” she says.

The Good Wife

"It is ultimately an example of the progress that is being made in terms of media depiction of woman lawyers. Alicia Florrick initially gives up the practice of law because she is a wife and mother, then she has to go back to the practice because her husband is disgraced and in jail and she needs an income. However, she is still defined by her relationship to him," Presser says.

"She then has successive affairs with her senior partner and her private investigator. But, she moves on to having important friendship and mentoring relationships with women. And by the end of the series, she pushes off everyone and is standing completely alone, finally ready to define herself," she says.

Presser also uses examples from mainstream media, citing the media fascination with prosecutor Marsha Clark’s perm during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, or defence lawyer Marie Henein’s choice of footwear while successfully defending Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault allegations.

"These are some real-world examples about women lawyers being gauged by their appearance in a way that men never are,” Presser says.

There are legitimate concerns about the retention of women in law, especially in litigation, and the criminal defence bar, and many of the media portrayals exacerbate that problem, she says.

Presser's 2011 anecdotal study, Off Track: To Maternity and Back, Against the Odds, demonstrated that women enter the defence bar in equal numbers with men and remain more or less in equal numbers through the first five years of practice, and then drop off.

An empirical study by the Criminal Lawyers' Association (CLA) showed similar results.

“The CLA’s study found that women do leave our bar in droves and don’t come back. They do so for many reasons — some of them go because defence practice is ferociously adversarial and competitive. Some of it is financial — the volume of legal aid work one has to take on to make a living is incompatible with family life.

"And there is subtle and not-so-subtle sexism to which we are subjected," Presser says. “What we don’t do is sacrifice our ethics or turn into criminals to protect the men in our lives or our children, and we don’t sleep with our clients, and we don’t sleep our way up our firms.

"So, some of the problematic media images are reflecting our reality back to us. But, a considerable amount of them don't. Many of them are perpetuating and exacerbating problems around how women lawyers are perceived.”

She says progress is being made and media portrayals of women lawyers are beginning to change, pointing out that L.A. Law was better than Portia on Trial and The Good Wife is better than L.A. Law.

"As more women become criminal defence lawyers, manage to stay in the profession, and refuse to be defined by our relationships with men or by how we look, and refuse to have to choose between career and family, the reality and the image are slowly changing,” Presser says.

“We are transforming the legal profession and the justice system around us. It’s time for media images to follow suit — to empower us and not to sensationalize us.”

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