When I was a baby barrister, one particular instructing solicitor used to send me his most unappealing, horrible clients on the basis that, in his words, “You look like a child, and judges will find it harder to slam my clients with your little babyface peeking up at them”.
At the time I accepted the backhanded compliment with good grace, grateful that a solicitor had found a reason, however damaging to my fragile pupil self-esteem, to send me work. I smiled politely, went home and, having dabbed my tears, resolved to grow the biggest moustache known to man.
I now know I was wrong.
What I should have done is tell him that his behaviour was unacceptable and ageist, and, having done so, publish his comments and my smug, self-righteous reply across social media for his professional colleagues, clients and family to enjoy.
For that, we learn today, is how 27 year-old barrister Charlotte Proudman dealt with a hamfisted compliment directed towards her appearance by a solicitor with whom she had connected on LinkedIn. The full story is here, but the offending dialogue reads thus:
This exchange was posted by Ms Proudman to Twitter, where, as she no doubt intended, it swiftly became viral. In a public statement released by the solicitor earlier, he said:
“Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.
‘Ms Proudman is clearly highly respected and I was pleased to receive her request to linkup and very happy to instruct her on matters which [are] relevant to her expertise, that remains the position.”
The final word goes to the claimant, who, she tells the Evening Standard, seeks a public apology and has complained not only to the CEO of the solicitor’s firm but the Solicitors Regulation Authority:
“She said: “It’s very disappointing, there are serious professional misconduct issues, as a legal professional he is required to uphold the law, and that includes the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act. I felt as though it was an attack really, that’s what sexism is.”
Now. It is plain that this was a pretty silly message for the solicitor to have sent. His public statement simply compounds his embarrassment, about as convincing a cover as donning glasses and fake moustache. If he was genuinely referring to the craftsmanship of the photograph, he would clearly not have prefaced it with an admission that his comments were “horrendously politically incorrect”. Professionalism – in fact normal standards of civilised behaviour – would dictate that you refrain from passing comment on a stranger’s physical appearance.
But “serious misconduct”? An “attack”? A breach of the “Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act”? (N.B. The Sex Discrimination Act was in fact repealed by the Equality Act 2010, as one might hope a lawyer pleading a claim would check). Was this approach, however ill-advised, a misdemeanour that requires not only the Twitter dogs of war but professional regulatory bodies to be let slip? Does it warrant – as could now follow – the extinguishing of an entire career?
The comment may well, depending on one’s personal political standpoint, qualify as sexist. It’s a comment that he may not have made to a man, and the application of double standards is a fairly decent litmus for -isms. By the same token, one wonders if, by unnecessarily invoking the solicitor’s age in her reply, Ms Proudman is herself teetering towards a counter-allegation of ageism. Presumably a sexist comment is sexist regardless of the age of its maker, and by pejoratively incorporating age into her response, Ms Proudman provokes the question of whether her disgust was motivated in part by this man’s advanced years.
But accepting that this was, and I think it cannot sensibly be put higher than this, a sexist comment made with no ill-will, Ms Proudman had other options. She could have responded by simply ignoring this clumsy, retro attempt at flattery. Or by just replying to him firmly, without sunning herself in the glow of self-publicity that she would have known would flow from publicly humiliating a senior partner in a large firm.
Because, mounting my equal opportunities podium, this is not just about the possible ruination of a man’s career, but about a broader, important point concerning the sexism that still pervades the legal profession, not least the Bar. While the Bar is better than it was, everyday sexism oozes out of certain tiers. The Head of Chambers’ hands on the pupil’s waist at chambers Christmas parties, indiscreetly sliding down. The robing room badinage voting on “the fittest juror” in a trial. The senior clerk who pushes a juicy brief a man’s way ahead of a female contemporary because, well sir, you know how she can get, LOLZ. The female practitioner on the pupillage recruitment panel voting against a 29 year-old applicant as a “fucking baby bomb waiting to go off”. The lack of female representation among the senior judiciary. And there is no better deflection from these serious, ingrained problems than the “hysterical feminist” trope. And in acting as she has, Ms Proudman has handed a propaganda scoop to those, in law and outside, who falsely proclaim the end of sexism and chide the redundancy of feminism.
This is not pointless “whataboutery”. It is acknowledging the problem, but reflecting on how best to tackle it. Do you raise hell over the inconsequential at the risk of giving your opponent an opportunity to deflect from the genuine issue? Or do you deal with such minor slights in a considered, discreet fashion that keeps your powder dry for the battles worth fighting?
The art of good advocacy is judgement. Knowing when to take a point, and how to present it to best assist your cause. Charlotte Proudman has demonstrated, to a captive national audience of potential instructing solicitors, that this, perhaps, is not her forte.