Presentation Style and Attorney Gender Matters

by Angela N. Johnson

"Women who use aggressive behavior are viewed more 'able.'"

Peter Hahn and Susan Clayton’s “The Effects of Attorney Presentation Style, Attorney Gender, and Juror Gender on Juror Decisions” addresses extralegal characteristics of attorneys, which may play a significant role in the decision-making behavior of jurors.  Presentation style, for example, is one factor to which trial lawyers pay a great deal of attention; similar presentation style used by male and female attorneys, however, yield differing results.  According to Hahn and Clayton, “The results indicate that, overall, aggressive attorneys were more successful at obtaining an acquittal for their clients than passive attorneys, and that male attorneys were more successful than female attorneys; presentation style also interacted with gender of attorney and juror” (Hahn and Clayton 533).  I do have, however, several concerns with this study.  For one, the past studies referenced are approximately twenty years old (conducted in the 1980’s) at a time that women were still struggling for popular acceptance as lawyers. This is potentially problematic because the results of those studies were used in formulating the variables in Hahn and Clayton’s 1996 study.  Second, Hahn and Clayton conducted their studies utilizing undergraduate students with an average age of 19.5 (age range was 18-22). This age range would not adequately represent the most common juror and therefore the results would not give a realistic insight on what real life juries think about women advocates. Common sense would indicate that most jurors are much older, and it is likely that the younger participants are drawing on a different perspective, one which women lawyers are more commonly seen as the norm. Additionally, not all jurors (like the undergraduate student participants in this study) hold undergraduate degrees or have attended higher education. It is possible that higher education exposes us to a greater awareness, understanding, and realization about women’s equality.  The students were sought through sign-up sheets in an introductory psychology class and posted in the psychology department; these students are likely to be more aware than non-psychology students of irrational discrimination of women.  In other words, could they have studied and become aware of the fact that despite proven falsities in stereotypes women face, that women are actually as capable as men?  This awareness could potentially skew the results of the study.  Lastly, Hahn and Clayton’s study was undertaken in 1996; since that time women in the legal profession have increased which may lead to a greater acceptability of women’s role as an advocate and therefore may not represent current sentiment.

Regardless of gender, the presentation style of the speaker affects his or her perceived intelligence, confidence, and believability.  In a 1976 study, participants rated speakers who made strong, confident assertions (such as “Hockey is a rough sport”) as more intelligent than speakers who made tag statements (“Hockey is a rough sport, isn’t it?”) Speakers who are confident enough about their statement to not solicit acknowledgement are perceived more intelligent and credible than speakers who are skeptical about their statement. However, using tag questions and qualifiers (such as “y-know,” “kinda,” “I guess,” or “maybe”) increased the speaker’s perceived warmth.  “Loudness, speech rate, and average pause duration between speakers were speech characteristics associated with assertiveness, and all added to the persuasiveness of the speaker . . . fast speakers were more persuasive and that word rate and dominance were positively related” (Hahn and Clayton 534).   Relating to representation of criminal defendants, a 1985 study revealed that assertive and aggressive defense attorneys (speaking loudly, quickly, and sometimes angrily with nearly constant eye contact) produced significantly fewer guilty verdicts than passive defense attorneys (speaking quietly with many pauses and little eye contact) (Hahn and Clayton 526).  Moreover, a 1983 study by Villemur and Hyde revealed that in criminal trials, “there were no significant effects of juror gender on verdict, but there was an effect for gender of the defense attorney: Jurors rendered significantly more not-guilty verdicts when the defense attorney was female than when he was male” (Hahn and Clayton 538).  Hodgson and Pryor discovered in 1984 that when women represented a criminal defendant, women participants in the study “rated the female attorney significantly less intelligent, less friendly, less pleasant, less capable, less expert, and less experienced than the male attorney.  There were no significant effects for attorney gender among men, who rated the male and female attorneys about the same . . . However, when the participants were asked whether or not they would be inclined to hire the attorney they heard as their own, the male attorney was “hired” significantly more than the female attorney” (Hahn and Clayton 538). More specifically, the various studies reveal that women’s effectiveness in representing criminal defendants increases when the client is convicted of a crime against a female; likely because jurors believe a woman would not represent a real rapist, etc.

Hahn and Clayton’s 1996 study revealed that aggressive attorneys were more successful than passive attorneys, male attorneys were more successful than female attorneys at obtaining not-guilty verdicts for their clients, and that each attorney was more successful with subjects of the same gender (contrary to the earlier study indicating that women subjects were more likely to view women lawyers as less competent) (Hahn and Clayton 542). 

As for aggressiveness, the male subjects rated the ability of aggressive male attorneys as lower than that of aggressive female attorneys – even lower than the female subjects’ ratings of the aggressive male attorneys (Hahn and Clayton 544).  The authors believe that aggressive behavior is preferred because it keeps jurors’ attention, perhaps leading to increased concentration on the aggressive attorney’s presentation. Though women who utilize an aggressive style may appear more “able,” the study reveals that women who utilize aggression are unable to make a crime appear less serious.  In other words, when women use aggression, they are less successful than male attorneys to obtain a not guilty verdict for their clients (Hahn and Clayton 549).

Differing personalities and speaking styles of women can also pose difficulty in law school, “A recent study found that women at the University of Pennsylvania Law School receive lower grades than men, are chosen for fewer awards and honors than men, and feel more alienated by their law school experience than men.  These differences are not based on a greater competence for men to study law than women, since men and women enter law school with comparable undergraduate grade point averages and Law School Admission Test scores, key determinants for success in law school.”  Rather, the “verbal behavior and reactions to men’s and women’s speech may party explain the difference in women’s and men’s law school experience” (Hahn and Clayton 549).

Source Citation: Hahn, Peter W. and Susan D. Clayton. “The Effects of Attorney Presentation Style, Attorney Gender, and Juror Gender on Juror Decisions.” Law and Human Behavior 20.5 (1996): 533-554.


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