Despite the constant reminders that our legal profession is far from reaching any sort of laudable goal when it comes to equality, diversity, and inclusion, I am generally optimistic that things are (slowly) changing for the better. My Twitter feed is filled with amazing diverse lawyers doing amazing things. I see allies speaking up. I see new calls taking a stand and demanding change. I am truly optimistic.
This optimism, however, is often tested (and lately it seems to be tested regularly) by encounters with mansplainers. For those unfamiliar with the (I would argue useful but over-used) term, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “mansplaining” as “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”
When I encountered mansplaining early in my career, I didn’t put a label on what was happening as the word was not widely used. I would just leave a conversation or a meeting feeling like a man had figuratively pat me on the head and said “Ahh, how cute”. I would be angry but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. Now I have no problem recognizing when mansplaining occurs, and I know exactly why I am angry.
Since starting my business Flex Legal Network Inc. in 2015 (a freelance lawyer company matching law firms with freelance lawyers/law clerks), the mansplaining has been off the charts. I will give you just a few of the many examples.
Once at a law firm cocktail party a rather “handsy” man asked about my business and I explained it to him. He replied, “No, that’s not your business, your business is. . .” and he went on to explain my own business to me for a solid five minutes. I kid you not.
On another occasion, speaking with a lawyer who was interested in learning more about Flex I asked him how he found us. He told me “By Googling”. I replied, “That’s great, I work really hard on our SEO”. He instantly put on his ‘Teacher Voice’ and said, “Oh it’s not that, Google has these algorithms you see, and websites with certain keywords and phrases are ranked higher and show up more frequently in search results.” Really? He also enunciated “algorithms” as if I was hard of hearing or couldn’t understand words with more than one syllable.
Most recently I had an encounter with what I have dubbed the “mansplainer extraordinaire”. A lawyer was interested in joining Flex as a freelance lawyer after a long career as a corporate lawyer. We had a pleasant enough phone call where we talked about our own legal careers and then I explained how Flex worked (we are not a law firm, we don’t take on our own clients, we are a company that matches freelance lawyers with law firms who have overflow legal work on a project basis). After the call I sent him Flex’s membership terms for his review.
The following week he emailed me back saying that “it was clear” to him, that I had “not fully thought through [my] business structure” but that he was “willing to work with” me to make sure that my business was “kosher”. He sent me a link to the Rules of Professional Conduct asking if I had reviewed them (seriously? Nope never heard of them. . .) and a link to a blog post explaining in layperson’s terms a “Limited Liability Partnership” saying “please read so we can discuss” (double seriously? I’ve only been practicing law for almost 14 years; did he really think I didn’t know what an LLP was?) He then said he was “just thinking things through to make sure Flex’s arrangements work” - this was followed by a 😉. He also attached his “amendments” to my three-page plain language membership terms. He had completely redrafted them into a ten-page contract full of corporate legalese gobbledygook. He clearly thought he was some lawyer-knight in shining armour coming in to save the damsel in business distress.
I was physically shaking with rage! I was livid! Even writing this a month later I can feel the anger. Why would this man think I wanted or needed him to “fix” my business? What on earth made this man think he knows more than I do about running a freelance lawyer company? Not that I need to explain this to anyone, but obviously before starting my business I did extensive research and planning, including reviewing and analyzing the Rules of Professional Conduct, the by-laws, law society commentary (not just the Law Society of Ontario's but from the law societies across the country and the world), legal journal articles, other secondary sources, and case law. I also spoke directly with the LSO and with experts in legal ethics. It was with all of this information that I chose to structure my business the way I did.
What annoys me the most about this encounter is that it ruined my day. I spent all day fuming and thinking about how I would respond. I wrote draft email after draft email (knowing none of them would be sent).
And then I got angry at myself for letting him affect me the way he did. I was angry that I let him ruin my day. I had a mountain of work to do, but I was paralysed. I billed not a single measly .1 for my own freelance clients and tasks that I needed to complete for Flex went undone.
Knowing I made exactly $0.00 that day has made me think about the economic costs that mansplaining has on my life. I know some people are better at just shrugging this stuff off and often that is the advice I receive: “Forget him” “Don’t waste your time” “You are overreacting”. I wish I could have just moved on with my day and went back to making money, but I am not built that way. Every time I encounter mansplaining, and the paralysing anger it induces, not only is my emotional well-being affected, so is my financial well-being. My productivity suffers.
And I know it is not just mansplaining and it is not just me. I would think that most lawyers who are subject to sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, etc. comments suffer from a productivity loss and an economic cost in addition to the emotional price-tag attached to such comments.
I struggled with how to conclude this blog post. The optimist in me wanted to end on a positive note. I’m not sure that I can. All I can say is that I waited a few days before I responded to mansplainer extraordinaire. I opted for a polite but clear email that I was not pleased and explained why his email was not welcomed (is there a term for explaining to a man what mansplaining is?) He was genuinely apologetic but also confused as he wanted to let me know his intentions were pure and he was really just trying to help. He said he should have called me instead of sending me an email (hint: mansplaining over the phone is still mansplaining).
I guess my one positive take away from this is that I hope the next time he (or anyone else reading this) has a desire to “help” a woman, that they take a second to stop and re-consider. Some questions to assist: did she ask you to explain something to her? Might she know more than you about the topic? Would most male lawyers with her experience know this?
Meanwhile, I guess I can work on my own reaction to mansplaining. I am no longer willing to take a financial hit for someone else’s bad behaviour.
Thanks for reading my blog! I write about my lawyer-life, women in law, and write the odd book review.
I had a series on my blog in 2018 called Women Leading in Law which focused on amazing women leading in law (I was tired of hearing about women leaving law). This series is on pause but will return at a later date.
In 2019 (in addition to my personal musings) I will be starting a series profiling law firms that are taking concrete steps to improve equality, diversity, and inclusion in the legal profession. I hope that the new series will highlight what is working (and not working) in increasing the retention and promotion of women and members of other equality seeking groups in law. I have four law firms signed on, but I am looking for at least 8 more firms of all sizes from across Canada that would be willing to be profiled. Know any firm trying to make a difference (beyond posting EDI policies)? Large, mid-sized, boutique? Perhaps firms started by lawyers who were interested in building a new type of law firm with EDI as a priority? Please let me know!
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.