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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gender and Advocacy Teaching

Do you teach men and women differently in your advocacy classes? When coaching trial teams, do you consciously coach men and women differently? Do you account for gender differences when discussing advocacy? Or do you treat everyone exactly the same, regardless of gender? And if you do, should you?

I've been mulling these questions over in my mind for the last few weeks, ever since Emily Reber Porter (a San Franciso attorney who is also the spouse of GGU's Wes Porter) asked them of A.J. Bellido de Luna and I at the In Vino Veritas competition final reception. They were great questions, interesting and provocative. Emily, A.J. and I had a very good discussion about these issues.

I didn't really have a good answer for her at the time, because I haven't consciously integrated different gender-based approaches in my teaching.  Whether I do so unconsciously is something I am unsure of but am starting to pay more attention to.  My answer at this point is that I'm not really sure what I do. And if I ought to be doing something different, I'm not quite sure what that is.

It's always dangerous to generalize about issues of gender, which is perhaps one reason I've shied away from  openly addressing these issues in the courtroom. I do tell my students to be aware of their stature, presence and appearance in the courtroom, regardless of gender. I tell them sometimes juries can be unfair and repeat the story experienced by one of my female students a few years ago in an advanced trial advocacy class. She did an amazing job in her trial but was disheartened at the end when every single juror, men and women alike, commented that they found her bangs distracting because all the other women in the trial had pulled their hair back away from their faces.

Occasionally, I'll enlist the help of a female colleague to advise a female student who might be dressed inappropriately for a professional environment. As a middle-aged man, I worry about communicating the wrong message to a student when critiquing something as personal as attire.

But I haven't done much more than that. Emily's question has caused me to wonder how I can more effectively address these issues in my teaching.

I've seen a few ineffective examples in my day. For instance, a guest speaker at the Army JAG School once told an advocacy course to be aware of their handicaps in the courtroom, which could include being female, or being an overweight male, or having hair that didn't fit military standards. Several of the women in the audience complained to me about how insensitive the speech was; to my chagrin, I hadn't really noticed the comment until they pointed it out to me. Another time, a female colleague in an intensive advocacy training course specifically critiqued one of the women in the class to improve her posture and "throw back your shoulders and show the girls off." Even I noticed that critique, which, by the way, did not seem to help the student deal with her posture and body language issues in a helpful way. I steal advocacy teaching ideas from others all the time, but I've never revisited that critique.

My wife teaches a negotiation class at our law school. She spends time talking about gender-based and race-based negotiation issues. Last semester, one of her female students, a former schoolteacher, wrote her a letter thanking her for addressing these issues in class and told her it was the first time in her formal education that anyone had discussed these things in a helpful way.

I suspect, if my own experience is a guide, that we may be collectively missing out on some great teaching opportunities and coaching experiences because of unawareness, ignorance or ineptitude.

Any thoughts on these matters? I'd love to collect some of your insights and experiences on gender and advocacy teaching, not only to improve my own teaching, but also to forward on to Emily.



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