Farewell, Ally McBeal, Enter the Litigatrix

This lawyer distinguished between “real trailblazers”—female lawyers like, say, retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and the first women to go to law school—and lawyers of around Karen Crowder’s age. The trailblazers made sacrifices, to be sure, but “they reaped success in unprecedented ways. They made partner, they achieved success in a day when guys were still patting female attorneys on the rump.”

In contrast, the next generation of female lawyers, the Karen Crowders of the world, come off as less appealing role models. “You give up your personal life, and you pay the price. And you don’t necessarily achieve a level of trailblazing accomplishment,” said the criminal defense lawyer.

“I look at the female partners who on the weekends go power-walking with their hand weights because they can’t torture their associates every second of the day,” she added. “They don’t seem like they have full lives.”

So the Litigatrix isn’t exactly an attractive template for female litigators, at least on the work-life balance front. Take Patty Hewes, Glenn Close’s character on Damages. She has a little more of a personal life than Karen Crowder—a husband, a son—but in reality she’s married to her job. Her relationship with her husband (her second) is anemic, and her relationship with her son is dysfunctional.

Could Patty Hewes the Litigatrix at least be a model for how women should litigate? Not necessarily. If you’re aggressive as a woman litigator, sometimes you’re dismissed “as shrill, as emotional,” said Ms. Vladeck. “Whereas aggressive men, they’re just seen as good litigators.”

 

ON THE OTHER end of the spectrum, of course, lies Ally McBeal. She was focused just as much on her personal life as her professional life (cue the dancing baby), and her litigation style was softer, featuring attempts to deploy her femininity in the courtroom as well as the bedroom. Could she represent a viable alternative to the model of the brittle and brutal Litigatrix?

In short, no. Among the group I spoke to, poor Ally has even fewer fans than the Litigatrix, who at least has the virtue of being a badass.

“The famous micro-mini skirts—absurd,” said the civil litigator. “Everyone knows this, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist: You can get people to look at your boobs, or you get them take you seriously as a human being, but not at the same time.”

“[Ally] was always a bundle of nerves over nothing at all. She was in the bathroom an unconscionable amount of time, always freaking out.”

The civil litigator suggested that Ally could learn a lesson or two from Ms. Swinton’s character, who would have a breakdown in a bathroom stall, but then sally forth and triumph: “Wipe your mouth, then get out there and do your business.”

Or, as Bette Davis’s Margo Channing laments near the end of All About Eve: “It’s one career all females have in commonbeing a woman.”