Guide to Public Speaking for Girl Lawyers

Lauren-Bacall-150x150Yes, I wrote “girl” in that headline.  And for a very specific reason. Recently, it’s hit the web that global law firm Clifford Chance has provided its female lawyers in its U.S. offices with a guide to public speaking. And while some (nay, even most) of the tips are perfectly reasonable, there are others that smack of such sexism to the extent that one might believe that Clifford Chance thinks of its female lawyers as girls.  To wit, one of the points in the guide:  “Don’t giggle.” Another: “Pretend you’re in moot court, not the high school cafeteria” (on “‘Like’ You’ve got to Lose ‘Um’ and ‘Uh,’ ‘You Know,’ ‘OK,’ and ‘Like’).

Like, seriously?

On both points, they are equally applicable to male lawyers. (Yes, men do giggle, but the use of that word here suggests something very female, very childish, and very undesirable.) Yet, it was only Clifford Chance’s female lawyers who received this five-page memo. It’s curious to me why this is so. Does the firm believe that there are separate rules for men and women? Does it believe that women need the extra help? Or is it attempting to support its female lawyers? If it is attempting to support its female lawyers, I applaud its desire, but criticize its way of doing so.

More of its sexist advice: Apparently, the best voice for presenting is a male one. Is it because a male voice carries better across the room or because a male voice carries more authority? With audio technology, all speakers can be heard when presenting (and, in fact, the Clifford Chance memo recognizes this fact because it provides a number of tips on dealing with audio technology, like microphones.) Nonetheless, a female lawyer is advised to lower her pitch and remember that “[y]our voice is higher than you hear.” Here, the firm counsels women to “[t]hink Lauren Bacall not Marilyn Monroe.” I get it—lower-pitched voices probably carry better than higher-pitched whispery ones. However, two things occur to me here.  First, Lauren Bacall, while husky-voiced, was no less sexy than Marilyn Monroe. In fact, she was arguably more sexy; a smart capable woman compared to Monroe’s more vulnerable “girly girl” persona. (Another way Clifford Chance seems to think its female attorneys are girls.) And I’m guessing “sexy” is not what Clifford Chance wants its female lawyers projecting in any event. So the references to both Bacall and Monroe fail. Second, I can’t imagine there would be anything worse than listening to a presenter with a naturally higher pitched voice trying to lower it for the duration of her presentation. That isn’t her; that’s not who she is, and her attempts to change that will just be one more thing for her to have to worry about when presenting.

Which brings me to a few of Clifford Chance’s other points about presentation. Female lawyers are advised to “[l]ose the quirky mannerism that are so charming to those who do know you.”  In other words, don’t try to be “cute” with your audience. Also, female lawyers should not “tilt your head.” I’m assuming that a head tilt somehow equates to being “cute,” rather than signaling, say, genuine inquisitiveness or concern.  Here’s my problem here, and it would apply even if this advice were to male lawyers, as well. Personality matters. And a speaker, female or male who checks her or his personality at the door before her or his speech makes for a really boring presenter. I agree that you don’t want your verbal tics or hand motions to overtake your entire presentation, but I believe you do want to bring yourself, with some of your quirks and, yes, maybe even head tilts, to your presentation. You will be human and so much more interesting to listen to.

Another suggestions for female lawyers: “[p]ractice hard words.” Is this assuming that female lawyers are going to get stuck over multisyllabic words? Or does it maybe mean that some words, even “easy” ones, end up being hard to say when you’re under pressure to perform outloud? In either case, this is not a bad piece of advice so long as it would apply to men as well as to women.  If only men had received the memo. That they didn’t suggests that the firm believes women are more likely to mess up the “hard” words.

The memo also tells female lawyers to not “talk taller than you are.”  This will be good news for my female colleague who stands six feet tall.  Not so good for me at five-foot, two inches.  Maybe I better dumb it down.

And, of course, we can’t have a memo on how to speak publicly without addressing how the speaker looks.  And looks do matter. Part of being a lawyer (or any other professional, for that matter) is looking the part. Okay, we get that. So, when a woman has a job as a lawyer at a large law firm, is it really necessary to remind her to “[w]ear a suit, not your party outfit” when she speaks? But it’s not quite that easy for women; apparently not just any suit will do. The memo also advises to not “dress like you do every day, wear something special,” but “[d]on’t wear the same outfit as you wore on the program photo, on [the firm’s] website.” And if you think the easy solution is just to wear black, well, the memo has further advice for you: “Don’t dress like a mortician; if wearing a black suit, wear something bright.”  Keep in mind, of course, that whatever “bright” thing you wear can’t be your party outfit and it can’t be what you’ve already worn in a photo.

And, naturally, a woman lawyer must not show her cleavage. Again, if a woman has snagged a job in a large firm, does she really need to be told this? But the memo states, “No one heard Hillary the day she showed cleavage.” Three things come to mind here: First, isn’t it condescending to refer to our former Secretary of State (and former First Lady and 2008 presidential candidate) as simply “Hillary”? Second, has Hillary Clinton ever shown cleavage? And third, duh!

That the memo was written by a woman does not change the fact that it has sexist overtones. Woman can be sexist, too. And I do want to reiterate that most of its points are good and important—for both women and men. But the fact that only women received it could suggest that the firm views only women as needing the (in some cases, oh-so-obvious) guidance.

In many ways, the memo is about how to earn respect as a speaker, yet the entire context of it is disrespectful. In all, the memo was just a reminder that the law is a man’s game and women apparently need to learn to play like a man to succeed.  How sad.

For the full memo, see here.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rosemarie Linhart

    I was going to ask you what rock Clifford Chance emerged from until I read the memo was written by a woman. How sad indeed.

  2. Tom Kamenick

    A lot of the criticism of this article assumes that these behaviors aren’t more common in women than men, either specifically at this firm or more generally. From this post, for example – “In either case, this is not a bad piece of advice so long as it would apply to men as well as to women.” “It’s curious to me why this is so. Does the firm believe that there are separate rules for men and women? Does it believe that women need the extra help?” “But the fact that only women received it could suggest that the firm views only women as needing the (in some cases, oh-so-obvious) guidance.”

    But if these behaviors are more common in women than men, it makes sense why the firm (or rather, the women’s committee at the firm) would give this advice to women. I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with undergrad communications professors about research into this topic that women – particularly young women – more commonly have these verbal weaknesses.

    Without further evidence (and let’s face it, NONE of us have any idea how prevalent these behaviors are at this particular firm), I’m not going to assume that this guidance isn’t needed.

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