Op-Ed: Finding my Voice as a Female Criminal Defense Attorney

Recently I was thrilled to be asked to be a faculty member at the TCDLA trial college. Paul Tu, a brilliant lawyer and I were both asked to do demonstrations of a closing argument on the same case. We purposely chose different styles to show the students. Paul’s argument was logical and methodical, it attacked the evidence and how it did not meet the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. My argument was more emotional, I spoke of a young woman who had worked hard for all her success and status, but when accused of a crime was not given the benefit of the doubt or an opportunity to be heard. When I was finished speaking, I was approached by three young female students. All three female attendees had the same question for me. How do you speak strongly and passionately, yet still be effective as a female attorney without being perceived as the emotional woman in the courtroom?

Their questions have stuck in my head and when I was asked to write an article on women’s issues in our profession, I began to think of how I could answer female defense attorneys who have this concern.

My own journey as a lawyer started out with me doing all I could to be unnoticed as a female. Right out of law school the only requirement for the suits I bought was that they looked professional. Nothing too girly, no pretty pastels, only dark blue and black, and nothing that would indicate I had curves of any kind. The skirts were to my knees or I wore pants. I did my makeup subtly, and I put my hair back in a ponytail. My nails were always subtle colors, my earrings small pearls or diamonds, nothing dangling, nothing distracting.

When I moved to Corpus Christi, TX about twelve years ago, I began taking court appointments. I was new in a small town and excited to learn. I remember paying special attention to my appearance and trying not look too feminine when I went to the jail or was in court. Mostly, I wanted to be seen as a lawyer.

I was lucky to receive the mentorship and friendship of two well established male lawyers with great reputations who took me under their wings. I learned so much from them but did not know how to navigate the one big difference. I did not know what to do with my femininity. Should I embrace it or hide it? Early on in my career, I had heard one prosecutor nicknamed me “Legal Barbie.” I was upset by the nickname because it labeled me and took away my worth in the courtroom as an advocate. No one would be worried about going to trial against “Legal Barbie” and how would any client feel comfortable with their case in my hands. I spent hours correcting myself. I did not want to appear too emotional, yet not overly rational to be perceived as cold. I wanted to be aggressive, but not too aggressive. If I was angry about a case, I couldn’t appear too angry. However, if I appeared too calm I could be perceived as not caring.

Recently the subject of my femininity as a defense lawyer was challenged again. I was speaking at a CLE on the topic of: Sexual Assault Cases in the Post Me‑Too Movement Era. I knew that the topic itself would be controversial, but I wanted to explore it, as I have many of these cases pending and think we need to address the situation. I spoke as a criminal defense lawyer, not as an advocate for feminism. I began my talk asking the audience, how many men in here feel comfortable telling a woman in the workplace she looks pretty? Many said they did not. I then asked, how many of you think twice before offering to carry a woman’s belongings, opening her doors, etc.? Many did. The point of my questions was to show how we are now unsure of rules in the face of changing times. What we once believed was polite or mannerly may now be considered offensive or suggestive. I told the crowd that I like being complimented and called pretty. It’s true, I do. I like to be feminine. I wear dresses. I spend time on my appearance, and it matters to me. Others do take offense to such things, and I think with our current juries we have to discuss these issues and address them head on to be effective lawyers. We have to be open and willing to deal with the uncomfortableness of not knowing what is acceptable, yet still emphasize the burden of proof has not changed despite changing attitudes.

After I spoke, I was leaving the CLE to check out of my room and an older woman approached me. She said that my talk had offended her. Once I decided to let go of my ego, I listened to what she had to say. She was sitting with another woman about my age who said she was not offended. I found their contrasting opinions to my talk interesting.

The older lawyer said that she did not think women should be called pretty in the workplace. She said she would be offended by that. She explained that she used to go to NOW meetings as a young woman and she fought to be heard, respected and valued, not for her gender, but for her mind. She told me the story of a being a young lawyer and a judge had taken her into chambers and “stuck his tongue down her throat.” She stated that some young female lawyers today offend her by their behavior and appearances. She does not think women should post photos of themselves online in bikinis or suggestive outfits and expect to be respected as attorneys. She told me the story of her being in trial once and the prosecutor against her was wearing a low‑cut revealing blouse and she told the prosecutor to go change. Apparently, the prosecutor listened and returned from the bathroom with her shirt turned around.

The younger female attorney and I were shocked by her statements. Isn’t the point of the feminist movement not to criticize and judge other women’s choices? That all women can do whatever they want because we have that freedom? I explained to her we were grateful for her fight but isn’t the goal of the fight for the freedom to do what we wanted? Couldn’t we now wear pants, wear a dress, stay home, go to work… be however we feel most comfortable? She disagreed with the statement and felt that those behaviors were setting the woman’s movement back.

I left the CLE and while I was driving home, I thought about her words. I didn’t want to disrespect the struggle she went through but didn’t agree that telling other women to not be feminine if they chose to was the answer either. I still don’t have answers for this debate, but her words have stuck in my head.

These recent events, both at the Trial College and speaking at the CLE, had me thinking again about my how my voice as a female lawyer would be perceived. When the younger lawyers asked me how I found my own way, I answered them as truthfully as possible. I told the students that one day I just stopped caring. I got so angry about what was happening constantly to my clients, about the injustices and inequities in the system, that I just eventually stopped worrying about myself or how I was perceived. My evolution has caused me to see myself as a tool to tell my client’s story. My mentor, Jimmy Granberry, taught me this lesson a long time ago when I was worried before a trial, he said, “It’s not about you… get over yourself.” I now say those words to myself before every trial. It helps me to not think about my ego, or my fears and doubts but to concentrate on my client. Once I got over myself, I became effective.

These recent events have made me think more and more about all the women who came before me and all those who will come after me. I do not believe I can tell a female how to own her power in the courtroom, how feminine to be or what not to do. However, I do believe we have gifts to do some things very effectively, like cross examine other women and children as only a woman can do. I believe we have a strength that I cannot describe in words when we own who we are, in whatever form we come in. It is my hope that my own evolution will reassure some young woman out there who struggles like I did. My advice is simple and not much different than that of my male mentor. I just had to discover it on a different journey ‑ it’s not about you, it’s not about your appearance, it’s not about what you wear or how emotional you are, it’s about telling the story. Embrace yourself, in whatever form you come in, and focus on using yourself as the unique tool that you are.

Lisa Greenberg
Lisa Greenberg
Lisa Greenberg is a proud criminal defense lawyer in Corpus Christi, TX and owner of the Law Office of Lisa Greenberg, PLLC. She is the current President of the Coastal Bend Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and board member of TCDLA.

Lisa Greenberg is a proud criminal defense lawyer in Corpus Christi, TX and owner of the Law Office of Lisa Greenberg, PLLC. She is the current President of the Coastal Bend Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and board member of TCDLA.

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