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Women and the LawThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

May 2013, vol. 18, no. 4

From rags to riches: How the portrayal of female attorneys in the media has evolved from clothes and fashion to focus and success

As the female population becomes more present in the legal profession, the portrayal of these females on television has also increased and has an impact on what the public expects from a female attorney. But is this a good thing? Are these portrayals accurate?

Television has a history of portraying female attorneys. From Shirley Schmidt of Boston Legal to Clair Huxtable of The Cosby Show to Miranda Hobbs of Sex in the City, female attorneys have truly had a presence in television. Where there was once only a few shows focusing on strong female attorneys, like Ally McBeal and L.A. Law, the networks are now more eager to boast shows with female attorneys. The portrayals of female attorneys in the media vary; some shows glamorize women in the legal world, and some sexualize the women. So how exactly are modern female attorneys being presented?

Damages is a show that displays two strong female attorneys. Ellen Parsons, a young, hardworking attorney begins season one working under the infamous Patty Hewes. Ellen emulates what may be one of the best female characters on television. In season one she is naïve but determined and her unwavering work ethic could ignite a fire in any aspiring attorney. Ellen is social and understanding, and clients can expect she will treat them with compassion, respect, and motivation to seek justice. Without delving into too much of the plot over the next four and a half seasons, Ellen shows a drive and a dangerous side that makes a young, female attorney one of the strongest female characters the television legal profession has seen.

A factor of Ellen Parsons’ success is her relationship with Patty Hewes. Patty Hewes is vindictive, a threat to men and women alike. Patty is ruthless , conniving, and successful. Patty’s manipulative ways earn her a reputation of a relentless but thriving attorney. Patty Hewes does not lose, unless it is a question of ethical values, because Patty may just be the most corrupt female to grace television. While this negative portrayal of a female attorney exists, the contrast between Patty and Ellen on Damages allows for viewers to acknowledge that there is a spectrum of cold and edgy that female attorneys are expected to be on. Thankfully, Ellen saves face for aspiring female attorneys with her sound moral compass and her drive.

Switching legal dramas to Suits, the strong female attorney is Jessica Pearson. Jessica Pearson is the managing partner at Pearson Hardman and she is highly respected. Jessica does not have a vital part of every episode as the show mainly revolves around Harvey Specter and Mike Ross; however, when Jessica is present in an episode, her presence is strong. Harvey Specter is the iconic strong, alpha-male who demands respect for his hard work, and the only person from whom Harvey Specter takes direction is Jessica Pearson. How refreshing to see a strong male lead character respect his female superior. Jessica Pearson is a commanding and strong female attorney and likely the strongest portrayal of a female attorney in a supporting role.

Parenthood has become a huge success with its complex family story line. While it is hard to determine a main character when the whole cast has a large role, it is fair to say that Julia, one of the four adult children, is a main character. From the beginning Julia has exemplified the modern working woman, she worked hard as an attorney and her husband stayed at home to take care of their daughter when they needed someone to stay at home. Julia has been empowering to female attorneys with her strong personality as a successful attorney. Julia’s success is consistent, that is until season 4 when Julia and her husband chose to foster a child. The stress induced by the new member to the family ultimately caused Julia to miss a vital filing deadline. Soon after Julia’s large blunder, Julia realized her family matters were far more important than staying on the partner track and she quit her job. Where Julia once was an empowering role for aspiring female attorneys, she quickly became an example. Julia is an example that women can be successful, can be breadwinners, and can ultimately end up being the emotional beings that quit their job because family is more important. Julia is an example that life happens, that family matters can severely stress your job, and that even a successful attorney can leave her passion for law to focus on the passion of her family. Her absence from her legal career may be temporary, but at this point in the series Julia is staying at home to focus on her family. The future for Julia is unknown but it would be inspiring to see her return to her passion of legal career once the balance in her family is restored. In Parenthood, Julia was the workaholic attorney in her marriage because she had such a supportive husband. Julia Braverman is the modern day Clair Huxtable, showing that with a supportive partner, a woman can have success for her family and for her career.

Overall, female attorneys have a presence in the media and not just a mere presence. When a female attorney is portrayed on a show, her personality and her work ethic shows. While older shows such as Ally McBeal and Sex in the City focused on the clothes and relationships of the female attorneys, the more modern shows are focusing more on female attorneys in the workplace. Do these strong willed characters give our clients the wrong ideas about what to expect when they hire a female attorney? The characters discussed have a wide range of personalities, from naïve to deceptive, from fresh out of law school to seasoned litigators, but each of the characters discussed are respected both in the courtroom and by their peers, and that is a refreshing message that I wouldn’t mind my clients seeing. ■

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Kerrianne Waters is a second year law student at Southern Illinois University School of Law. Kerrianne is a 2011 graduate from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration: Marketing. Born and raised in Peoria, IL, Kerrianne enjoys being a resource to others and is currently a volunteer at the SIU Self Help Legal Center in Carbondale, IL. kwaters@siu.edu.


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