When I was a first year associate, I received a letter from opposing counsel addressed to “Mr. Rhodes.” I had never spoken to this individual and so apparently, confused by my gender neutral first name, he chose to refer to me as “Mr.” I was so frustrated, how was I supposed to correct this error? I went to my assistant, and we spent way too many billable minutes trying to figure out a tactful (but not rude, I was a first year associate, I couldn’t stand to be rude!) way to make it clear that I am a “Ms.” not a “Mr.” Finally, we decided that she would send back my response letter with a note that said “Please find attached Ms. Rhodes’s response to your letter.”
Fast forward a few years and I realized that I not only took an approach that was much too passive, but I wasted way too much time worrying about offending this person who couldn’t take the time to put my name in to a search engine (or visit my firm website) to determine if I was a man or woman. Now, when this happens (and it does more than you might think), I simply respond to the email with a note that “for future reference, I am female.” Done.
I have also been on the opposite side of this. I once submitted a letter on behalf of a client to referred to the client as “Mr.” instead of “Dr.” I was deeply embarrassed at my error, and quickly remedied it. However, I am sure my client was less than impressed at my mistake.
So what is the take away? Sometimes a mistake like this is an issue of unconscious bias, and sometimes it is nothing more than a simple mistake. Unconscious bias touches most groups of individuals (and could be the subject of many, many blog posts). Before we make an assumption about someone else, make an effort to find out whether or not that assumption is correct. It really wasn’t that I was offended that I was called “Mr” instead of “Ms.” But I couldn’t help but wonder – if this attorney paid such little attention to that detail, how could I trust him to focus on more important ones?
I now make it my goal not to be the person who misses a detail that discredits me to my opposing counsel. I also make it a goal not to be influenced by unconscious bias of any kind, and instead recognize my colleagues for exactly who they are. If nothing else, it shows opposing counsel (or my client)
I recognize that as busy professionals it is easy to make this mistake but there are so many quick and easy ways to avoid it:
- Look them up through a search engine (most firm websites have pictures)
- Try Facebook, LinkedIn or other social media
- Check the State Bar website – many attorneys have posted pictures to their profile.
- Call (or have your assistant call) the opposing attorney’s office to find out.
How have you experienced and/or overcome unconscious bias? What steps have you taken in your practice to avoid simple mistakes that could offend someone else (or cause someone else to question your credibility)?