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Marjorie G. Fuller

Q & A

December 27, 1993|ANNE MICHAUD | Times staff writer

A year ago, the legal community in Orange County assigned itself the task of examining gender bias. The scope of the committee ranges from questions of whether a female lawyer should be granted a court continuance for a pregnancy to whether judges believe that fathers want no more than a minimal responsibility for their children. Marjorie G. Fuller, whose Fullerton practice specializes in appealing civil cases to state and federal courts, co-chairs the committee. She spoke recently with Times staff writer Anne Michaud.

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On women trying high-profile cases. . .

"The client says, 'I'm a 72-year-old corporate president, and I don't want some girl being lead counsel on my case.' So, maybe they'll put a man in as lead counsel. Five years from now, that will be different."

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On gender bias as an issue for both sexes. . .

"It will be nice when a man has the opportunity to say to his senior partner, 'I want to take Thursday afternoon off because my son's in the kindergarten Christmas play.' "

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On how women want to be treated. . .

"It's really attitude. If you treat me as an intellectual equal, then I don't care whether you hold a chair out for me or not."

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On sexual harassment overkill. . .

"I have a problem with women who report harassment or bias because they were stared at or glared at or leaned over."

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Q: What did the gender equity committee do in its first year?

A: We decided we needed to focus on a couple of areas. One is education. There's a lot of ignorance in the legal community about what gender bias is and who it affects and how.

There are who say this is just a women's issue. And you say, 'What about people who are trying to get custody of their children through the court system?' So our first job is to educate judges and lawyers because we are, theoretically, the people who are supposed to be the leaders of the community in terms of following the law and equitable behavior, doing what's right.

We did a lot of education through articles in the Orange County Lawyer and the local newspapers. We had some mentions in national magazines. We had a seminar that attracted about 150 lawyers and judges.

The second part of our program was to establish a forum for people who had a complaint about gender bias. We're in the process of setting up a way for lawyers, judges and court personnel to either complain about gender bias or to be the recipients of complaints.

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Q: How far-ranging are your topics? Are you discussing the female lawyer who feels uncomfortable within her firm? Are you going as far as court cases that seem tainted by gender bias?

A: We're talking about every aspect. We have representatives on our committee from a presiding judge of Superior Court and the judges in Municipal Courts throughout the county and federal court judges. We have lawyers from the major law firms, we have representatives from the public defender's office and from the county counsel's office, so we cover the whole range.

We also had a meeting, we targeted the 30 or 40 largest law firms in Orange County and asked each of them to send a representative to a meeting of our committee, and they all came.

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Q: Why is there so much interest? Why now?

A: Times are changing. In the legal community, for a long time, women were very unusual. It wasn't until the mid-'70s that women became commonplace in law schools. It seems like a very short time ago. When women were unusual in the system, nobody knew how to treat them, and the fact that they could be there and survive at all was fine.

Women were getting out of the house and into the marketplace and everybody was trying to figure out what to do, including the women.

Now, I think we've come to the point where women in the marketplace, women in positions of power, women in positions of importance are far more common. And people need to know what to do and how to treat them. We need to know how to act and what to expect and what we're entitled to expect.

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Q: A national study was just completed saying 51% of all female lawyers report they were sexually harassed during some point in their careers: 39% said they received unwanted looks and gestures, 29% said they were touched, pinched, cornered or leaned over. And 19% said they were pressured for sex or dates. You have said these results do not surprise you.

A: That doesn't surprise me for a couple of reasons. One is, all of the women who have been working for a long time, early in their careers--certainly prior to the Civil Rights Acts of anti-discrimination in 1963 and 1964--were subject to all kinds of unwanted pressures and sexual harassment.

It was law at that time that it was OK to fire a woman because she was pregnant. I lost a lot of jobs because I've got four kids and every time I got pregnant, I got fired.

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