Gender Trials


This engaging ethnography examines the gendered nature of today's large corporate law firms. Although increasing numbers of women have become lawyers in the past decade, Jennifer Pierce discovers that the double standards and sexist attitudes of legal bureaucracies are a continuing problem for women lawyers and paralegals.

Working as a paralegal, Pierce did ethnographic research in two law offices, and her depiction of the legal world is quite unlike the glamorized version seen...

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This engaging ethnography examines the gendered nature of today's large corporate law firms. Although increasing numbers of women have become lawyers in the past decade, Jennifer Pierce discovers that the double standards and sexist attitudes of legal bureaucracies are a continuing problem for women lawyers and paralegals.

Working as a paralegal, Pierce did ethnographic research in two law offices, and her depiction of the legal world is quite unlike the glamorized version seen on television. Pierce tellingly portrays the dilemma that female attorneys face: a woman using tough, aggressive tactics—the ideal combative litigator—is often regarded as brash or even obnoxious by her male colleagues. Yet any lack of toughness would mark her as ineffective.

Women paralegals also face a double bind in corporate law firms. While lawyers depend on paralegals for important work, they also expect these women—for most paralegals are women—to nurture them and affirm their superior status in the office hierarchy. Paralegals who mother their bosses experience increasing personal exploitation, while those who do not face criticism and professional sanction. Male paralegals, Pierce finds, do not encounter the same difficulties that female paralegals do.

Pierce argues that this gendered division of labor benefits men politically, economically, and personally. However, she finds that women lawyers and paralegals develop creative strategies for resisting and disrupting the male-dominated status quo. Her lively narrative and well-argued analysis will be welcomed by anyone interested in today's gender politics and business culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Pierce (sociology, U. of Minnesota) provides an intriguing ethnographic study of sex segregation and gendered roles in the modern legal profession, focusing particularly on the unacknowledged "emotional labor" of "Rambo litigators" in a male-dominated job and "mothering paralegals" in a feminized occupation. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Elizabeth Mertz
In GENDER TRIALS, Jennifer Pierce carries on the important work begun in one arena by Arlie Hochschild and in another by Michael Buroway, building upon and synthesizing their insights as she brings an innovative sociological perspective to bear on the legal workplace. Using a combination of participant observation and in-depth interviewing, Pierce takes us inside the working worlds of today's lawyers and paralegals, arguing that these worlds are deeply divided along lines of gender. The ethnographic fieldwork took place in one large law firm and in the legal department of a large corporation over a period of fifteen months. Like Burawoy, Pierce is interested in analyzing the complex interaction that continually recreates hierarchy in the labor process. She approaches this analysis with a sophisticated conception of the relation between social structure and individual agency, moving beyond simplistic models that view structure as all-determining and self-actualizing apart from the interventions of individual human actors. Instead, she uses a detailed account of the struggles and daily activities of paralegals and lawyers to demonstrate how on-the-ground practices participate in hierarchical structures. Through this kind of account, we can see the complex character of the ongoing relationship between structure and agency: on the one hand, both the top and bottom of the hierarchy continually -- if at times unwittingly -- perpetuate it in active ways; on the other hand, there are also resistances and strategic refusals to conform that can unsettle and push against forms of workplace domination. Like Hochschild, on the other hand, Pierce includes emotional work within her conception of labor, and she understands the division of labor in the legal workplace as deeply affected by gender relations. As Pierce explains, the very structure of the profession itself reflects its history as a male preserve, with far more men than women attorneys occupying positions of power at the "top" of the firms, and far more women than men paralegals and secretaries occupying positions at the bottom of the hierarchy. But this is just the beginning of the story, for Pierce details many aspects of the legal workplace that actively discriminate against women in both crude and subtle ways. One crucial site for the reproduction of gendered hierarchy in legal work is the realm of emotion, which plays an important role in ensuring that "men are affirmed as the authority and women as subordinates" (p. 9). Thus, conceptions of gendered work and of emotionality become important parts of the hegemonic form of labor in these legal workplaces. There are multiple layers to the problem as analyzed by Pierce; here I will detail just a few. First, the work itself is conceptualized in heavily gendered terms, so that the ideal litigator possesses strongly masculinized traits while the ideal paralegal possesses stereotypical feminized characteristics. Using ethnographic accounts, Pierce contrasts the "Rambo litigator" with the "mothering paralegal," showing the ways in which these identities permeate not only interactions among workers, but also employment and promotion decisions. Second, women lawyers and paralegals seeking to buck these conceptions in the service of upward mobility are often placed in difficult double binds, and are at times stigmatized. For example, women attorneys who adopt the stance of the "tough guy" litigator may receive disapproving reactions from co-workers of the following variety: "Well, we'd better not call Anne up for a date." (p. 119). This kind of response obviously highlights the dilemma posed by the differing cultural norms surrounding the ideal lawyer and the ideal woman. By contrast, male paralegals who do not fit the "mothering paralegal" mold are often given added encouragement and help in their efforts to move up professionally. Third, because of unacknowledged expectations regarding gender and emotions, women carry disproportionate proportions of the emotional labor in firms. An important part of the paralegal's role is to "support and maintain the emotional stability of the lawyers they work for, through deferential treatment and caretaking" (p. 85). Not only do the paralegals themselves describe their work in these terms (e.g., "I went into my reassuring routine"), but the attorneys and personnel directors in charge of hiring paralegals are quite explicit about this dimension of the job ("I'd just rather work with the gals -- they're a lot nicer and they know how to listen"). Fourth, because this kind of labor is not culturally valued, women are as often punished as rewarded for carrying this disproportionate burden. Paralegals who uncomplainingly accepted extra work, last-minute assignments, and thoughtless or disrespectful treatment received only more work and less respect for their pains. As Pierce explains: This is what I call the "tyranny of niceness": the nicer and more uncomplaining paralegals are, the more work gets dumped on them.... This is the double bind that emotional labor presents for women paralegals: if they are nice, they are exploited, and if they aren't, they are considered problematic. (p. 169). Pierce's ethnographic descriptions provide compelling examples of this process at work. Finally, moving to less subtle levels, Pierce also describes overtly exclusionary practices, along with forms of sexually-based harassment, shaming, and negative commentary ("Male attorneys referred to various women paralegals as 'bimbos,' 'ditzy,' and 'Barbie dolls,' implying they were sexually attractive but dumb.") (p. 150). Pierce's ethnography deftly opens up the quiet, but oppressive, ways in which this gendered division of labor operates. In both overt and covert ways, she argues, those who perform the emotional labor of caretaking are rendered invisible as human beings. This can be evidenced in quite material form, in the degree to which a worker is "interruptible" -- so that a superior can walk up at any time and expect the worker to put down everything. (An extension of this is the related expectation that the superior can demand and receive whatever his or her emotional needs require -- whether it is reassurance, a listening ear, or an opportunity to vent pent-up emotion.) Or it can be conveyed through silences -- as when attorneys walk down halls greeting other attorneys but failing to acknowledge the presence of a paralegal or secretary. This invisibility has been described as an aspect of servitude in other situations as well. This is difficult territory to map, because of the subtlety of the processes involved. Pierce's book is a major contribution to the study of the contemporary professional workplace, as well as to our understanding of the real reasons for the much-discussed "glass ceiling". Her answers are, happily, not simplistic; the study produces a complex model in which not all women or men are alike, and in which structure is not simply imposed unilaterally from above. A strong point of the book is her discussion of the range of women's responses to the double-binds they face. And yet, just as Buroway's workers contribute to hierarchy even as they resist, Pierce shows us the ways in which many of women's coping strategies ultimately participate in an ongoing structure of relations that disadvantages them. Her book joins a small, cutting-edge literature that is elucidating the processes that continue to reproduce inequality in the modern, capitalist workplace. For those interested in the sociology of law, this is a compelling and accessible account of the ways in which previously understudied aspects of legal work involving emotion and gender are shaping the legal profession -- and, by extension, the way law is practiced.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520201088
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/1996
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,425,989
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer L. Pierce is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1 Gendering Occupations and Emotions in Law Firms 1
2 The Gendered Organizational Structure of Large Law Firms 26
3 Rambo Litigators: Emotional Labor in a Male-Dominated Job 50
4 Mothering Paralegals: Emotional Labor in a Feminized Occupation 83
5 Women and Men as Litigators: Gender Differences on the Job 103
6 Gendering Consent and Resistance in Paralegal Work 143
7 Conclusion 176
Appendix 1. Articulating the Self in Field Research 189
Appendix 2. Lawyer Jokes 215
Notes 217
References 231
Index 253
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