Why I Am Asked My Age At Work

It is an unusually cool morning for late August, but, in my dress shirt, suit and makeup, I am grateful for the lack of typical Pennsylvania humidity. I stroll into the conference room, place my briefcase on one of the chairs surrounding the large dark wood table and extend a hand and smile to the older couple waiting nervously. The woman, dressed beautifully in a light sweater, her white hair pinned neatly behind her ears, is my client. She returns my smile, and says “I thought when we spoke on the phone that you were a young girl, just from the sound of your voice.”

Close your eyes and imagine people in various professions. First picture a librarian. Then think of how a nurse would look. Now envision a lawyer.

Let me guess, that last one is a man, wearing a clean, sharp suit and bright tie. Perhaps graying around his temples, perhaps already balding. His voice has deepened with age, and his eyes, while bright and playful are creased at the corners. Maybe he wears glasses, which he then pulls off in court and uses to point with for emphasis. His briefcase is worn from attending many, many, many meetings.

I am none of these things.

I graduated from college just as this county was tottering into the recession, and thus decided to postpone the ‘real world’ a few more years and pursue an additional degree. That was several years ago, yet despite years in school, and a few years working, I am usually the youngest person in the room. Different areas of law probably have varying cultures, some I am sure, are dominated by women, some by younger attorneys. My chosen area, however, does seem to have a high percentage of men matching the description above.

For the most part, being a so-called ‘young professional’ has not been a problem, although one attorney noted on the record that I am his child’s age – cue uncomfortable laugh. And of course youth, and the lesser level of experience that comes with it, can have advantages. Others in the field, even opponents, can be very encouraging, occasionally giving practice tips, or asking about my experience thus far. Being young makes you stick out as being new, and that engenders a certain amount of gentleness.

Where I am the most awkward, and aware of my age, is when interacting with clients. I feel that my youthful appearance somehow let’s them down. Often I interact with a client over the phone prior to meeting them in person. We have a great chat, we make a plan, we set a meeting, and then I show up. That is when they ask my age. I am quick to tell them that I am being supervised by a more senior practitioner. I waive comments off, saying that I look younger than I am. I have even told clients that I hope my appearance does not change their level of confidence in me. I am usually told that it does not, yet every new client has the same initial reaction.

In a world that is youth-obsessed in so many respects (see, any show on tv), it is a strange experience to find pockets where youth works against you. I spend my evenings at the gym or slathering on night cream to stave off wrinkles, but in the morning I choose conservative suits and solemn shades of makeup in an attempt to look more mature.

It is difficult to find fault with people for wanting a representative who looks experienced. Surely some day, when clients no longer bluntly ask my age, I will sigh and remember the days of being a young (new) lawyer. Until then, my girlish appearance is incentive to be very professional, so as to win their trust.

 

 

 

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