Millicent D. Newhouse
Early in my practice, I recall occasions where my client, whom I had only spoken to over the phone, would meet me and be visibly surprised to discover that I was a person of color. At the office too, I had experiences with some of my new colleagues, who treated me differently. I was not often invited to lunch or coffee, as were my non-minority colleagues. There were times when I felt lonely as one of the few minority attorneys in the office.
I can also recall experiences where opposing counsel, and even judges, treated me differently. The difference was evident from the way they interacted with non-minority/non-female attorneys. In one instance, I was in an administrative hearing with a white male judge and a white male opposing counsel. The judge engaged in inappropriate behavior throughout the hearing. He at one point literally scooted his chair over to the side where opposing counsel was sitting so that he was no longer at the head of the table. He and the other attorney then proceeded to laugh and joke throughout the hearing. They double-teamed my witnesses, the judge asking questions that opposing counsel should have asked to make his case. The judge engaged in ex parte communications with opposing counsel, and harassed my witnesses.
As a woman of color, one often feels there is an unspoken assumption that she will be less than or not as good as other attorneys. If you are good, then you are clearly "an exception." Minorities who excel in their professions are met with comments like "Oh, she is so articulate." This type of comment is rarely made of non-minorities in the profession. We assume that attorneys in general will be articulate.
One gets used to having to work harder and better. When one of these incidents occurs, one goes through her mental checklist: Am I being treated differently because of my race or gender? She is always wondering which, if any, might be the reason for the disparate treatment.
I have also had some wonderful experiences with the non-minority legal community. I have developed, over time, several mentoring relationships and personal friendships that I cherish. The minority and specialty bar associations help. Washington Women Lawyers, for example, through key members of its leadership in recent years, has made a conscious effort to recruit and attract a more diverse membership and to encourage women of color to seek leadership positions. It does take a proactive approach to cultivate a membership where minority attorneys feel welcome.
I think most women of color would agree that to have come this far to become an attorney means we have likely dealt with a great deal of adversity, racism, and election without opposition in 1998. Judge Clark reports that she went to law school later in life, and became interested in the role that judges play in seeing the whole picture, weighing the evidence and making impartial decisions. Certain aspects of the judicial role came as a surprise, including the high level of administrative involvement required of the judiciary, the need to develop a keen sense of awareness about the tremendous impact of one's words and actions, and the duality of being isolated, yet extremely visible, "almost like a fly in an ice cube." Judge Clark has been frustrated by the overall lack of resources to provide adequate services to a growing population of pro se litigants. Her experience as a woman judge of color has been mostly positive, which she attributes to several other women who preceded her to the bench and smoothed the way, although she does still occasionally detect a condescending attitude from older white male attorneys, perhaps related both to race and to gender.
Judge Norma Huggins of the King County Superior Court (one of the women whom Judge Clark refers to as a trailblazer) was initially appointed and then elected in 1988, after first serving in the Seattle Municipal Court. Judge Huggins cites as her biggest disappointment or frustration the lack of resources to offer more effective sentences, and as the biggest surprise, the need to run for office and the increasing costs of doing so. She states that "on many occasions" she has perceived a reaction from litigants, and occasionally from attorneys, a reaction to her status as a woman judge of color. It is her belief conduct will not change until the culture is changed nationwide.a great deal of adversity, racism, and discrimination for most of our lives. Each of us has stories to tell of our struggles and triumphs. For me, the key has been to keep my professional life in perspective and remember that the law is what I do but it does not define who I am. It is critical to have a support network. To successfully survive, you must see these obstacles in your legal career as challenges and opportunities for change and personal growth.
Millicent D. Newhouse is past president of the Washington Women Lawyers.