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‘Honey, we’ll tell your lawyer when he gets here’: WJA honorees detail indignities endured while practicing law

Chloe Murdock//October 25, 2021//

‘Honey, we’ll tell your lawyer when he gets here’: WJA honorees detail indignities endured while practicing law

Chloe Murdock//October 25, 2021//

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Women have made up over half of law school graduates since 2017, but the profession is still catching up to greet them. Judges and other attorneys have mistaken 2021 Women’s Justice Awardees — accomplished partners, shareholders, prosecutors and legal interns — for litigants or support staff.

Susan E. Block is the 2021 Woman of the Year. When she was just starting out as an attorney, she would regularly be confused as her own litigant at a court clerk’s desk.

“They would say, ‘Honey, we’ll tell your lawyer when he gets here,’” Block said.

After serving at both the associate and circuit levels in St. Louis County Circuit Court from 1979 to 2004, she says she doesn’t have this problem anymore.

Block remembers judges would cancel court and send home women attorneys for wearing pants instead of skirts or forgetting to wear a blazer.

“Imagine trying to explain that to your client,” Block said.

When she was still the only woman in the room at the beginning of her career, Block said that she removed career barriers by keeping her mouth shut and gaining male allies who would support her goals. As a single mom, she told her kids not to tell anyone she was gay out of fear that she would lose her job as an attorney. She was elected to her first judge position while she was still in the closet.

Later, a judge would tell Block in confidence that she was seen holding hands with an out woman attorney at a restaurant, and that judges were privately laughing about it in chambers. In following selection panels for judicial elevations, she knew they had privately talked about her orientation.

The first time she publicly acknowledged her partner was at her first swearing in as a circuit judge.

Block remembers when the late Ann Q. Niederlander was sworn in after her as the first female judge in Greater St. Louis, days before the Nonpartisan Court Plan went into effect. Block remembers Niederlander telling her that when Niederlander’s law school admitted her, it told her she would never be able to practice law. Niederlander would give the commencement speech years later.

Margaret Nolan later joined the bench with them, and Block remembers the one time all presiding judges in the metropolitan area were women. There was also one particular municipal defense case with a man as a litigant — and the only man in the room. She, the judge, watched him look around and realize this was a court of all women.

“What is this, kangaroo court?” he said.

Block said that especially in family court, it’s much more common to have only one man in court or on a Zoom call. She recalls recently listening to a woman attorney speak when a man interrupted her, and she responded that she wasn’t finished.

Block said she would never have attempted that at the beginning of her career, and she admires young women who don’t tolerate this behavior — as well as those who earn the title of partner at their firms.

“They want more than a place at the table,” Block said. “They want a voice at the table.”

Lauren Collins previously served as an assistant circuit attorney with the city of St. Louis. While she stood at counsel tables, where only attorneys are permitted as per courtroom rules, people looking for the prosecutor — her, a Black woman — would approach her asking if she was the secretary or the clerk. Once, she was asked to stand behind another attorney. 

Judges would sometimes ask Collins to clarify that she was an attorney before starting proceedings.

“What about me standing here would make you think I’m not an attorney?” Collins said.

“Are you an attorney?” was only the first question when she passed through St. Louis court entrances, and she would simply answer yes. Even to pick up files from court, court security would ask to see her bar card. She said it was a surprise when a Franklin County court deputy didn’t ask for it.

Once, Collins slipped on the city courthouse steps and was sent to a physician. He asked her what her job was, and she told him.

“He looked at me in my face and asked, ‘Are you sure you’re not a paralegal?’” Collins said. “No jabs to paralegals, but how would he have felt if I thought he was a nurse or a nurse practitioner?”

For the first two to three months in Alexus Williams’ prior role as a prosecutor in St. Louis, Williams, who is Black, would be stopped on her way into the courtroom at least once a week. Male sheriffs, people working at the intake desk and even other women attorneys would ask for her bar card after letting three attorneys in front of her go through without question.

And just this month, two years after Williams left her prosecutorial role, she was picking up court files for her current position and someone asked for her bar card once again.

“I’ve been around enough to have seen it prior to COVID,” Williams said. “It’s the same issue, it just has different faces.”

Williams also said that while working with white male interns and university law clinic externs, people would approach the male intern assuming he was the attorney, and they would have to correct judges and other attorneys.

Williams and Collins both individually reported how they realized in law school that their white peers had a family network they could rely on who had already completed law school. During Collins’ hood ceremony, she was surprised how many white students had a family member hood them. None of them were the 10 Black students who graduated that year from Saint Louis University School of Law.

“Not to say that my white counterparts did not have struggles. Their struggles were different than the Black student who I’ve gone to school with and talked to.”

For Collins and Williams, they say the only solution to these experiences is to be a resource for other women attorneys as a mentor and as a role model. Cay Edwards, a 3L student at Washington University who has been asked to help firms she interns with expand their workforce diversity, agrees.

She’s also noticed that being the only Black person or Black woman in a class meant that others would try to make her hold their discomfort about her identity for them. She said that she has “untrained” herself to see that as a conversation every time, while also staying open for teachable moments.

“I got to a point where I could foresee where something was going and could cut it off, or agree to disagree,” Edwards said.

During Edwards’ second semester of law school, one of her peers asked Edwards if she had a summer internship lined up already, and she did. Edwards’ peer, a white woman, said, “Well you know you got that because you’re Black. It’s just much harder when you’re white.”

Edwards simply gave her a long look. Her peer backtracked, realizing that what she had said was out of order.

Edwards wished her luck.

“It’s a constant exercise, not in self-control, but in self-respect,” Edwards said.

She said that hearing from superiors who have emphasized that they appreciate Edwards for her work ethic and her drive have helped her “decode stereotypes” about herself and feel like she belongs in rooms where mostly white men are taking up space.

“I’m here because I’m supposed to be here,” Edwards said.

Edwards doesn’t have a bar card (yet). But the first time she ran an errand for her current internship at Capes Sokol to pick up case files at a St. Louis court, she walked up to staff operating the metal detector to ask where the records department was. They immediately dismissed her without a good morning, put a hand up to her face, asked her to take a number and sit down.

Edwards realized that they had assumed she was a litigant.

Behind her, a “flustered” young man in a suit said he was there for court, and she watched them waive him through. She got up again and made it clear that she was there for work and she needed to return to it, and they let her through.

“I will say that it’s not up to the world to validate you,” Edwards said. “Especially being a Black woman attorney, it’s up to you to make sure that when you go somewhere, you know your stuff and you don’t have to make excuses for people’s behavior.” 

RELATED: 2021 WJA Honoree profiles 

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