Tell it to SunStar: On being a woman in the ‘profession’

Tell it to SunStar.
Tell it to SunStar.SunStar file photo

By Jennifer Sta. Ana-Pajarillo

Since 1999, I’ve been part of a profession that espouses the ideals of fairness, justice, equity and respect for the law—where lawyers seemingly stood on equal footing, regardless of gender or gender orientation.

In my early years of practice though, I had the curious experience of being part of a small law firm where I felt gender roles were being “assigned” by some of the male partners to the associates for tasks that strangely enough, had nothing to do with law practice.

The firm was still growing and only had three associates, myself included. The senior associate was a female, only a few years younger than the partners, and they were all alumni of the same law school in Makati. The only male associate and I were batchmates from that other law school in Diliman.

For some reason, administrative tasks such as arranging the catering for Christmas parties, decorating the office for holidays, organizing summer outings, and making hotel bookings, were delegated to the female associates. And so it was that I found myself calling the caterer and choosing the menu for 15 or so pax for my first Christmas party with the firm. It wasn’t bad really—maybe they thought those occasions demanded a “woman’s touch.”

But what bothered me was how one of the partners once put the senior associate to task for not promptly delivering on the Christmas decor. She was already burdened with corporate work for our clients, putting in long, and to the partners’ advantage, billable hours for most of the work week. Who could blame her if that partner’s desire for a festive look for the office had to take a back seat to her real job as a corporate lawyer? In our cramped office quarters, we cringed as we heard that male partner give Atty. X a “tongue lashing” for failing to deliver on the Christmas physical arrangements when, horrors, it was already the first week of December! Poor Atty. X. She cried privately in her room. She did not deserve that treatment. Atty. X and Partner Y were practically contemporaries, having been law school classmates.

Then, towards Christmas, with one of our foreign clients detained at the National Bureau of Investigation (let’s call her, Mrs. Park), and her car impounded by the same agency, our bosses conspired to “grease” the wheels of justice by having lechon delivered to one of the Bureau’s departments in time for their Christmas party. To be fair, the department head was the one who had indirectly asked for a contribution to their gathering.

I had the task of ordering the lechon, then meeting the delivery guy at the NBI to pay for it. I don’t recall having signed up to become a “bearer-of-lechon-in-exchange-for-the-release-of-a-client-who-was-at-odds- with-the-law.” But there I was, at the NBI, just in time to pay for a whole roasted pig from Ping Ping’s Lechon. I also had the unpleasant task of following up (or was it begging?) for our client’s release. If three of our firm’s four partners thought a woman’s charm would work wonders, they were not only subscribing to an outdated (even in December 1999) and entirely sexist (there, I said it!) idea, but they were also working on the false assumption that I had any charm at all! Ask my mother!

As it turned out, I was a wallflower at the NBI party, attended mostly by male NBI agents. With no hope in sight for our client’s release, I snuck a call to the office to ask for further instructions. The partner who was not part of the plan to bring lechon took the call as the other three partners were out. Mercifully, Atty. T immediately asked me to leave the party and to go home since, as he said, I had no business being there, and that a paralegal should’ve been assigned to handle that task, not an associate.

With Christmas around the corner and our client still under detention, the three partners decided to call in reinforcements. On Christmas Eve, the senior associate Atty. X, our secretary L, and myself were given marching orders to bring Mrs. Park home for Christmas. Perhaps, our three partners were thinking that three times the feminine charm would work on the NBI agents detaining our client.

When we got to the NBI, however, we were informed that Mrs. Park was ready for release. I can no longer recall why she had been detained in the first place. Her personal driver was also there to retrieve both her and her impounded vehicle. We assisted with whatever documentation was needed for our client’s release. The whole affair ate up most of our Christmas Eve and whatever Christmasy feelings we deigned to have that holiday season. Some virus must have been going around as well since later that evening, and up to Christmas Day, Atty. X, Secretary L and I were all stricken with the flu. I texted one of the partners letting him know my sentiments about doing their dirty work. He did not respond. And the issue or non-issue was never brought up again.

I also recall many joking remarks from the managing partner, again directed at Atty. X, on her boyfriend-less state at age 30-plus. The partners would ask her why she did not date and why she was not considering marriage at her age. Atty. X shrugged it off gracefully while I mentally screamed: “It’s because you bury her in corporate work!” On the other hand, I seemed to have their approval for having a steady boyfriend (also a lawyer then working for another firm, now my husband).

But I too did not escape scrutiny from the Managing Partner. One time, he noted that my office attire, usually cardigans paired with either black slacks or skirts, with a beaded choker necklace as accessory, reminded him of American actress Gwyneth Paltrow. From 1999 to 2000, both Gwyneth and I were in our twenties. Since Gwyneth was one of Hollywood’s “it girls” at the time, I took the comparison as a compliment.

On one occasion however, secretary L whispered that the MP had told the secretary pool that my outfit of the day (a suit my mother had gotten me in Hong Kong consisting of a short-sleeved red blouse with black buttons and piping, and with matching knee length A-line skirt in black) made me look like a department store sales lady. Since he could not tell it to my face, I could only gather that he did not like my outfit. But what was so wrong with the department store uniform? If anything, I have long commiserated with the department store sales lady for always being on her feet, for working long hours, and for not having security of tenure. But that, is arguably, a topic for another discussion.

At my yearend review, the MP called me aside to compliment me on my service for the firm. He said I worked hard and produced good work “without having to wear red lipstick and swig beer from a mug to be taken seriously by our predominantly male clients.” Come to think of it, was that really a compliment or another sexist remark? Now that I look back on it, I think he was gently castigating me for not being more outgoing. I was then, and still am today, an introvert.

Many years later, looking back at that experience, I wonder, was sexism truly at play at that law firm? And why was my batchmate, the lone male associate, not assigned similar non-legal tasks? Also, the partners never complimented each other nor our lone male associate on their barongs, suits or whatever they deemed proper office wear yet the MP deemed it okay to review my office garb.

Mercifully, working at my own father’s small law practice taught me that I could just do the actual legal work without having to worry about my appearance, my attire, my demeanor, my bearing, my civil status, my gender, and even about other people’s perception of me. “Basta’t tira lang ng tira,” (roughly translated, “just strike and strike”) was his advice. Sound advice, I’d say. Of course, “tira lang ng tira” did not mean that I would just draft contracts, pleadings and affidavits or show up for case hearings without having done thorough legal research and preparation beforehand.

I think “tira lang ng tira” meant what I said earlier—to just do it, do the task at hand, subject to the qualification that one should always be guided by morals, ethical standards and one’s own sound judgment and common sense, without fear or reservation tied up to popular opinion, and without having to submit to outmoded ideas of what one can and cannot do as a woman.

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