For Women in Law By Women in Law

Guest Blogger, Brooke Fernandes, reminds us why making assumptions about others in a professional context is not only inappropriate but – hello! – uncalled for

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Are you old enough?

A typical exchange in the professional context:

Me: “Hi, I’m Brooke. I’m a lawyer.”

Client or allied professional: “I hope I won’t offend you…but, are you old enough to be lawyer?”

Ah, the dreaded question: “Are you old enough to be a lawyer?” Since I started articling, I’ve been asked this question, or some variation, too many times to count. Sometimes the question is a bit more subtle, and I’m asked: “Have you completed your articles yet?” or “When do you graduate?” And if it’s not a question, it’s a comment, a comment related to my age and appearance: “I remember when I was that young” or “You can’t have been at this very long.” I’ve muddled my way through questions and comments like these since I started articling.

Before I was called to the bar, age-related questions bothered me. I asked the men I articled with if anyone ever wanted to know if they were old enough to be a lawyer. Even though I was older, in calendar years, than them, they would look at me, slightly confused, and shake their head no. “Whatever,” I told myself – it’s likely just a combination of me objectively looking young (whatever this means) and a person’s tendency to speak without thinking. Women endure these kinds of questions at all stages of life. If you wear an engagement ring, you hear: “When’s the wedding?” If you’ve been married for a few years, people wonder out loud: “Planning on kids anytime soon?” If you’re hoping for kids and are fortunate to find yourself pregnant and showing: “When are you due? Will you take 18 months or just the 12?” (Note to the reader: very uncomfortable if the answer is neither…but that’s a topic for another blog post). After you celebrate your kid’s 1st birthday: “Think you’ll have more?” The list goes on…and on. In the personal context, I find myself much more confident to quip back at a nosy relative or well-meaning friend with a witty comment or a direct “that’s not really any of your business, is it?” delivered with smile, of course. But in the professional context, it’s so much harder. How should you respond?

After I returned from my first maternity leave earlier this year, I was caught off guard the first time I heard the very familiar question: “Are you old enough to be a lawyer?” Just recently, I was at a networking event, seated at a table with a group of allied professionals I had never met before, and when I introduced myself, someone squinted at my name tag to see my position then said, in front of the entire group: “So… you’ve articled? I hope I won’t offend you… but, you don’t look old enough to be lawyer”. Now, I’m bothered. There’s a level of self control required to absorb these comments, but I sometimes feel I’m reaching my limits. I feel like shouting: “Don’t you see? I’m not young.” Not only am I about 5 “law” years older than when I took my lawyer’s oath, I feel (and I think, look) much, much older. I’m sore – a combination of ageing, high intensity workouts and sitting behind a desk. I’ve got wrinkles forming under my eyes – the cumulative effect of nights with minimal sleep thanks to a little human. What about me feels young to you?

As I’ve reflected on this topic from time to time, I’ve tried to articulate why these comments bother me. And in doing so, I’ve wondered if I’m justified in feeling this way. I’ve reached two conclusions.

First, comments about age in the professional context are inappropriate. If a person presents themselves as a lawyer, they’ve graduated from law school and been called to the bar. If they haven’t, that would be very bad (hello, Mike Ross!). So, why ask the question at all? Really, what’s the point? Is a lawyer expected to look a certain age – 25, 30, 35? Not that age is even always relevant to the year you were called to the bar.

Second, comments about age in the professional context may reflect unconscious beliefs about how women lawyers should look. You’re telling me I don’t look old enough to be a lawyer and I’m wondering (1) how I need to look to look like a lawyer; and (2) how I need to look to look old enough to be a lawyer. And if I look old enough or, in other words, how you expect me to look, then? Is the issue in this exchange really my age or is it that you had expectations about how a lawyer should look and I don’t meet them? Perhaps this helps explain why people appear to speak without thinking on this topic.

My conclusions are a work in progress. I haven’t yet decided how best to conduct myself in these interactions. I fear one day I may just have to be blunt and say: “That’s not appropriate”. Would that be ok?

I’m curious, are you too finding yourself in these awkward interactions? If so, I challenge you to consider both (1) how you do respond; and (2) is how you respond, how you should respond.

And if you too find yourself in these uncomfortable exchanges, please hear me: you are old enough and you look exactly like you should.

 

About the Author

Brooke Fernandes is an associate at BKS Law Corporation and practices in the areas of wills, estates and trusts. Outside of the office, you’re likely to find Brooke at the CrossFit box or chasing her little human along the streets of South Surrey with a (very large) cup of coffee in hand.

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