The Female Criminal Defense Attorney Flying Solo

The Bollywood Lawyer shares her perspective from the trenches.

Guest Contributor:  Seema Iye0a1a120r

These days everyone thinks it’s like Viola Davis a la “How to Get Away with Murder” – strutting into court in skin-tight sleeveless suits with a legal entourage of paralegals, investigators and interns.

Hardly.

The female criminal defense attorney’s life is nothing like that. Though I’m all in praise of network television paying homage to our life of solitude; a woman solo practitioner is a rarity. 

Swing by the courthouse–any courthouse–on any given calendar day, and you will find throngs of white, middle-aged, balding men with briefcases (private attorneys) or backpacks (public defenders) but a gaggle of girls is a novelty outside prosecutors’ offices.

There are, by far, more women in public defenders’ offices; perhaps because it couples ideology with stability (i.e., health insurance and a steady paycheck) in a fraternal setting. When you are a solo practitioner plus your expertise is criminal defense plus you are a female…..well, you’ve just made your life, both personally and professionally, exponentially more difficult, my friend.

So, why are there so few women in this profession? For one, we ladies hate asking for money. Whether it’s a raise, payment or that payback of a loan to a friend, we are notoriously terrible at this. And asking criminal defendants for money is another question altogether.

Then what are we good at? Being warm, kind and cuddly. All of which you must get rid of immediately in this line of work. I recall one of the first violent felonies I handled; the family compared me to a social worker. Considering I have (and still have) law school debt which could buy and sell a social worker on the black market, I vowed to flip the script. I was tired of pretending to be nice anyway. Time to be the “B” I really was.

Male criminal defense attorneys, on the other hand, can be a client’s BFF, bro or bud. You’ll catch them in the courthouse fist-bump and half-hug with ease. If I did that to a male client he’d probably sue.

Seriously.

Although the average person thinks female criminal defense attorneys get hit on constantly, that’s not a significant issue. You’d be surprised how being strong and smart evokes tremendous respect from men who so desperately need your help.

Still, there are always occasions when a male client will say something ranging from mildly inappropriate to outright offensive. You have to shut it down immediately. Lay down the law that such comments will never be uttered or else, “I walk.” That usually does the trick.

And always keep it professional. Don’t ever be tempted, in an effort to make a connection, to reveal personal details of your life to any client. Do not risk being seen as a woman, rather than as a lawyer. Because once you take that attorney’s oath, once that license lines your wallet, you are forever lawyer first – everything else, second.

Seema Iyer is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney,  who blogs and hosts a podcast called “The Bollywood Lawyer.”  She came to criminal defense work after being  in-house counsel at USA Broadcasting (USA Networks, Inc.) and a criminal prosecutor in Bronx County, New York.  An expert in forensic technology, science, medicine and psychiatry, Seema advocates for patients’ rights and represents persons with mental illness.  Seema is also on the Gender Fairness Committee of the NY court system which creates programs to address issues such as human/sex trafficking, domestic violence and hate crimes.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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