How can we tell whether someone who walks through the door is a lawyer, or a client, or a messenger, or someone who wandered into the wrong suite? We can’t. So let’s all stop assuming we can.
A little over a year ago, I walked into a law firm and stopped at the front desk. I gave the receptionist my name and told her I was there for a deposition. She paused, looked at me curiously, and said, “The court reporter is already here. Are you a second court reporter?” Nonlitigators, let me tell you, there is seldom more than one court reporter at a deposition. Yet, for whatever reason, that seemed more likely to this person than that I could be a lawyer.
I shrugged it off and went on my way. But from sharing experiences with colleagues and friends and an informal poll on LinkedIn, I know my experience is not unusual, and that troubles me. Every so often, discussion at Association for Women Lawyers events turns to swapping tales of being mistaken for an assistant, a court reporter, a paralegal, or an intern. But you don’t have to be a woman to have this experience. These experiences remain disappointingly ubiquitous for lawyers who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a lawyer in one way or another.
We all have implicit biases, and they die hard. There’s no shame in that human fallibility. But those biases can cause problems when people encounter strangers at front doors, reception desks, and courtrooms and make comments based on their wrong assumptions. Whether motivated by misguided attempts at efficiency or charm or out of sheer ignorance, acting on assumptions is unwise. Maybe the comment will roll off the stranger’s back. Or maybe it will make them feel offended, degraded, or downright mad. It can cause people to feel like they don’t belong, setting the tone of the entire interaction to follow. To even take that risk is bad manners and bad business. It doesn’t have to be this way. A little reflection, training, and thoughtfulness can prevent most of these blunders.
Check your habits. Talk with whoever staffs your reception area. Replace presumptuous comments with open-ended questions. Here are some examples:
Bad: “You must be here for client intake.”
Good: “How can I help you?”
Bad: “Are you a paralegal?”
Good: “Who are you here to see?”
Bad: “Will your supervisor be joining you?”
Good: “Will anyone else be joining you?”
We can’t always stop ourselves from forming assumptions about the people we encounter. But we can choose to consciously keep our minds open and fight those assumptions. Next time you encounter a stranger walking into your office or sitting in a courtroom, push your assumptions aside. If you don’t know who the person is, please, just ask.