The American Bar Association established an ethics rule last week prohibiting attorneys from using sexist, racist and condescending terms. And it’s about time.
Full disclosure: I call people “Honey.” A lot.
But I need to watch what I say, if I’m going to praise the American Bar Association (ABA) for finally establishing an ethics rule that forbids that kind of talk.
The new rule prohibits attorneys from using overly familiar and condescending terms like “Honey,” “Sweetheart”; covertly sexist urgings of “calm down,” and any comments or actions that “single out someone on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability and other factors.”
Critics complained that the rule would inhibit lawyers from speaking freely, whether it’s on behalf of their clients or otherwise.
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But none of them spoke out against the rule before it was approved at the ABA’s annual meeting last week in San Francisco.
I appreciate these people having the good sense to keep their mouths shut.
But I, too, am a little speechless.
Two dozen state bars and the District of Columbia bar have passed similar rules against sexist behavior. But until last week, the ABA had no national rule on it.
It’s even more stunning that lawyers — presumably well-educated, intelligent and reasonable people — had to be ordered to treat their colleagues and clients without racism, sexism or anything short of professionalism.
Oh, please, attorney Anne Bremner said when I called to get her take.
“I had a judge ask me to baby-sit the defendant’s kids in the hallway,” she told me. “And I was the prosecutor.”
Did she do it?
“Sure,” she said. “I was really young and he was the judge and the kids were acting up. Even though I am the last person anyone should leave their kids with.”
Names, she’s heard plenty. “Blondie,” “Sweetheart,” “Legally Blonde.” Judges have greeted Bremner and her fellow (male) attorneys with: “Mr. Smith. Mr. Jones. Anne.”
That said, Bremner doesn’t see every name and comment as sexual harassment. She has been a lawyer for many years. She knows a lot of people. Sometimes a nickname is just a nickname.
“Judges I have worked with, the male attorneys who have mentored me,” she said, “these guys have put in all kinds of time to make me a better lawyer.”
She cited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s words about determining obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
“Sometimes people don’t mean what you think they do,” Bremner said.
Guilty. I call people “Honey” and “Love” like it’s my job. Co-workers, complete strangers. Everyone. It’s a Jersey thing, but it’s also my way of injecting a little warmth into the colder interactions of life.
I’m not alone. On a Facebook post linked to a New York Times story about the new rule, one female attorney wrote that it may create more division between the sexes, and inhibit collegiality.
Ah, but a newsroom is hardly a court of law. What lawyers and judges say becomes part of an official record. Professionalism should rule the day. Every day.
Bremner thinks the climate is better now for female attorneys — especially the younger ones.
“They are much stronger than I was at that age,” Bremner said. “They don’t put up with stuff. They don’t bend to intimidation.
“Now, it’s something so rare that it makes me go, ‘What?’ ”
King County Superior Court Judge Hollis R. Hill had the same reaction I did to the ruling.
“I was laughing because it’s 2016!” she said. “The ABA just figured it out.”
Hill started out as a lawyer in Chicago in 1974. She’s had male attorneys tussle her hair and pull on her scarves. A sheriff’s deputy once refused to let her speak to her client in lockup because she didn’t respond to the deputy’s advances.
“As long as you played along and were a nice little girl, things were fine,” Hill said. “But if you asserted your right to represent your client …”
A judge once winked at her before signing a motion to suppress evidence.
“He turned getting a motion signed into a flirtation.”
That same judge once made a crack about briefs that caused her to redden.
“I knew exactly what was going on,” Hill remembered. “They were making fun of me. I remember because it was humiliating.
“It’s a way of putting you in your place,” she continued. “Belittling you, intimidating you and taking away your power. And in that environment, it’s all about power.”
Hill doesn’t see any kind of inappropriate behavior in her courtroom, she said, “But I imagine there is some skirmishing in depositions.”
In her view, though, Washington state is more progressive than most. The chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court is Barbara A. Madsen, a woman; as is the presiding judge of King County Superior Court, Susan Craighead.
Said Hill: “We may be living in a dream.”
Maybe so. But it’s important to remember that in other courtrooms, in other places are female attorneys who have been “Honeys” for far too long.
With this new rule, they have the power to call it what it is: Professional misconduct. Disrespectful. Old.