You Don’t Look Like an Attorney
Kinza Khan is an attorney specializing in domestic violence, family law, and immigration at a nonprofit legal services organization in Chicago. She has been involved in interfaith work for several years and is part of the IFYC Alumni Speakers Bureau. She was born and raised in the Chicago area and in her free time enjoys writing, running, and trying new restaurants.
When I started working as an attorney, I was often in court litigating cases of domestic violence. Most of my clients were women, and many were also immigrants or minorities. I found that being a young, minority woman myself helped me build rapport with them. They often asked me where I was from or how I got into this field, and I believe they felt more comfortable discussing sensitive issues with me, including issues of sexual and domestic violence.
However, I did not have the same advantages in the courtroom. Not only was I a woman, but I was also a young lawyer, worked at a nonprofit legal services organization (as opposed to a private law firm), and perhaps most notably, I wore a headscarf. At my “activist” law school my headscarf was sometimes seen as a political or feminist statement, but that was not the case once I started practicing law.
Most often, I was working against other lawyers who were older, white, and male, although this varied by case. According to the American Bar Association, the legal profession is still predominantly made up of white men: in 2017 two-thirds of all active attorneys were men and the other two-thirds were white. Although this is slowly changing, I felt this statistic to be true when I was in the courtroom.
On a countless number of occasions, other attorneys appeared surprised to learn that I was an attorney. Sometimes, they even assumed that I was the client, a domestic violence victim and that my client was my attorney. This was especially true if my client was white. On one occasion when I was working with a Swahili speaking family, another attorney on the case asked if I was the interpreter. All of these instances continued to surprise me. Why was I not being recognized as a lawyer? I didn’t know if it was something that I should get used to, or, as the progressive side of me preferred, refuse to get used to.
I didn’t realize it until well after it began, but eventually, I found that other lawyers’ attitudes towards me were affecting my self-esteem and my belief in my ability to do my job well. Sometimes, based on the other legal professionals’ treatment of me, it was easy to conclude that they were acting a certain way towards me because of either my inexperience, my gender, my headscarf, or my skin color.
However, more often, it was difficult to differentiate – I couldn’t assume one over the other. It wasn’t clear why I was being treated differently. I try to be careful not to conclude that someone’s treatment towards me is necessarily due to my minority status. But the uncertainty was still undermining my confidence. Was I being treated this way because of someone’s unfounded bias, or was I not doing a good job?
One day, I was representing an immigrant victim of domestic violence against her husband, who was represented by a well-reputed private lawyer. The lawyer was known among my coworkers as an aggressive attorney who could be disrespectful, and they gave me their sympathy upon learning that he would be my opposing counsel in this case.
When I appeared in court, I approached him to suggest a potential agreement between my client and her husband. The opposing counsel immediately interrupted me, and before hearing my suggestions, aggressively stated he wouldn’t agree with anything I had to offer. He looked at me briefly but then condescendingly averted eye contact. He then incorrectly told me that the law would apply in this case as to favor his client. Despite the confidence in his tone of voice, I knew he was wrong.
I took a second to remind myself that I knew what I was talking about. I took one breath, keeping my cool, and I told him that we could not agree to do what he was asking. I went on to say that we could discuss the matter in front of the judge for a contested hearing rather than coming up with an agreed order. My tone remained calm and professional. I noticed that the lawyer raised his eyebrows and seemed to be at a loss for words, unprepared to answer this, perhaps even taken aback and caught off guard. I then realized that the confidence I exuded, whether it was fake, real, or a combination of both, went a long way.
At the hearing, I won on the contested issues and I realized that despite the opposing counsel’s confidence and condescending nature and despite his more years of experience, I still knew this specific statute and its application better than he did. After this hearing and this realization, I was pleasantly surprised that I had stood my ground. However, I was disappointed in myself for being surprised that I won. Why am I surprised, I thought, I need more confidence in my ability as an attorney because I know what I’m doing more than I give myself credit for.
At this moment, I also realized that I had internalized a lot of the sexism, racism, ageism, etc. that came not only from other professionals in the courtroom but from my childhood. I couldn’t recall seeing a minority female lawyer on a TV show or movie when I was growing up, or in any leadership position in any of my organizations.
I realized that this attitude came not just from other lawyers. It had in fact been a series of subliminal messages throughout my life, including a series of attitudes and comments that I now started recalling. These comments included: “You don’t look like an attorney,” “I would have never guessed,” “Are you sure you want to litigate?” and “You’ll have to speak up in court” (I’m already pretty loud). I realized that as much as I fought the comments at the time, they may have contributed to some subconscious feeling that I couldn’t be as good of a lawyer as the attorney who looks like the ones in the TV shows.
This epiphany was a rude awakening yet a blessing. In becoming aware of this, I could become conscious of it and check in on my own confidence levels. When I wasn’t feeling confident about my skills, I was able to try to pin down why that was: whether it was actually due to lack of experience (which is okay and common among new lawyers), or whether it was because someone, or something, tried to make me feel that way and I let it. Or was it because of my own insecurity that I had developed as a result of internalizing various attitudes that I had witnessed? By pinpointing what the cause was, I was able to address the feeling and start to fight it.
This isn’t a problem I have fully resolved, but rather something I work on often. In addition to the common challenges that come with being a young lawyer, I have the added fight that many young, minority or female attorneys have in this field as well as many other fields. But, if it means that this field and society is changing, then I welcome the challenge and I hope I can be an image and role model of a confident, female, minority, attorney for younger generations to follow.