My law firm said I need to smile more.

Help! My Law Firm Said I Won’t Make Partner Unless I “Smile More.”

Help! My Law Firm Said I Won’t Make Partner Unless I “Smile More.”

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 10 2017 9:00 AM

Maybe It’s Not You

I’m a woman, and my law firm said I won’t make partner unless I “smile more.”

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a female lawyer on the brink of making partner at a midsize firm. I’ve been passed up several times in favor of male colleagues who bill fewer hours and generate significantly less business. When I asked what I needed to do to get there I was told I needed to smile more, come out of my office, and attend more company events and happy hours. I attend all holiday parties and major firm events, but I am already working 70-plus hours a week, which leaves me little time for my family. The happy hours are every week and last for hours, and I don’t drink! I am friendly and make conversation with the partners and get lots of praise from clients. I am already burned out, and it is affecting my family life and health. I’m just not sure I can give any more and the men that were promoted above me rarely attend any of these events, leave the office at 4, and I’m willing to bet were never told to smile more! I feel like this is a subtle form of discrimination. There is only one female partner out of 20 and these are the people voting. I’ve invested a lot in the company so it’s not that simple to just leave.

—70-Hour Work Week

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It’s never simple to “just” leave, of course, but you’ve been given a pretty clear picture of what the company expects from you if you want to make partner. If you’re already burned out to the point that it’s affecting your health, then I think it’s worth seriously considering leaving, even though you’ve already invested a lot of time and energy into this company. I don’t imagine the pace will let up so significantly after making partner that another few years of this would be sustainable for you.

You do, however, have two other options available to you. If you’re absolutely bent on trying to make partner without making waves, which untold women before you have tried with varying success, you might take a more ruthlessly strategic approach to following the instructions you’ve been given. Make sure you get seen at office happy hours but bail once everyone else is two or three drinks in, when they’re less likely to notice you’re slipping out early. Schedule one or two short breaks in your day when you know most of your colleagues are likely to be chatting in the halls or in the breakroom and spend five or 10 minutes chatting amiably before getting back to work.

The other, possibly harder path, is to pursue (at least the possibility of) a discrimination suit, because what you describe sounds like discrimination—and not a “subtle” form, either. I don’t have any legal advice about how to go about this, other than to spend time gathering evidence, making clear notes, and speaking to someone who does know about discrimination suits. You do not need to be told that this would be a long and arduous process that would be valuable for women everywhere going through what you are, but which may not end up helping your own work-life balance. But even if you choose not to pursue a complaint, you can still build a case in order to be able to say: “I’m committed to making partner and will definitely spend more time socializing with others in the firm, but I think it’s also important to point out I’ve billed more hours than anyone else in the last [quarter, or year, or however long you’ve been outperforming your peers].”

* * *

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Dear Prudence,

I recently was introduced to an important work client in a casual setting. In the course of our getting-to-know-you discussion, she mentioned having a stepdaughter and indicated that she was married. I later asked about her husband, and she politely corrected me—she has a wife. She wasn’t at all offended. But it left me wondering if I had been rude in assuming she was married to a man, and if, in this day and age, you just shouldn’t make that assumption. On the other hand, I can see a heterosexual person being potentially offended that I think they may be gay by asking upfront if their spouse was a man or a woman. How should I have handled this?

—Was I Rude?

It’s not rude to assume most married people are in heterosexual partnerships because most people are heterosexual. Of course, as you yourself know, one never has a social interaction with most people. One can only interact with individuals. You certainly didn’t violate any rules of etiquette, but if in the future you want to want to acknowledge a wider range of possible orientations, you could try on the habit of saying, “Oh, what does your partner/spouse do?” rather than “What does your husband do?” Don’t ask outright if a client’s spouse is male or female. Just stick to a gender-neutral term and let them respond with specifics.

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* * *

Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend of 10 years recently proposed. I accepted, but I don’t think I should have. He’s my best friend and I love him, but he’s very uninhibited. He’s into every type of fetish or “odd” sexual behavior there is. Exhibitionism and voyeurism, homemade porn, BDSM, urine/scat, blood, orgies—just to name a few. He wears high heels everywhere unless it’s impractical or not allowed. I am very vanilla, which I quickly realized after trying to participate in his sexual adventures, including exploring his bi-curiosity. Outside of that, we get along well, which is why we’ve been together so long. Do you think it’s OK to ask him to turn it down? I still feel guilty because when we met he was in an open relationship but cut it off to be exclusively with me.

—Inhibited

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A lot of people write in asking “if it’s OK” to ask a kinkier partner to meet them in the middle when it comes to sex. I think it is. You have done your level best to join your partner in his interests, but they don’t do it for you, and in fact serve as an active turn-off. You say the reason you’ve been together so long is that you two “get along well,” which does not sound like an emphatic expression of love and devotion to me. If, in addition to that lukewarm endorsement, you two are as wildly sexually mismatched as you seem to be, then I think there’s a reason you’re happy to call him your “best friend” but so reluctant to call him your fiancé. Sexual compatibility is a hugely important part of marriage for most people. It’s not shallow or judgmental if you acknowledge the two of you simply aren’t well-suited for one another.

It may be that your boyfriend is so wild about you that he’s willing to forgo exploring his kinks most of the time, and if you two are genuinely able to reach a meaningful compromise that doesn’t make either of you feel stifled or guilty, then that’s great. But your doubts are a good prompt to have a bigger conversation with him about your relationship. If your sexual ideals and his don’t even come close to matching up, then you should probably part as friends now.

* * *

Dear Prudie: I’m in love with a prude—how do I spice up our sex life?

Hear more Prudie at slate.com/prudiepod.

Dear Prudence,

My partner is very into apps, social media, and the internet. I have Facebook so I can occasionally message people who live back home and that’s it, but my boyfriend cannot get off his phone. That might not bother me, but he’s constantly showing me pictures from Snapchat or Facebook of people I don’t know, reading listicles to me, or sending me endless memes and “funny” things from an aggregate site all day (around 10 an hour if we’re apart). I’m trying my best to feign interest, but I’m awful at that at the best of times and after almost a year of being with him, I’m now trying to politely shrug it off and tell him I’m not that into any of it, but it won’t stop! When is it acceptable to just say “Jesus Christ, I don’t even have Snapchat for my own friends, stop showing me the dumb things your friends are doing!”?

—Luddite

Neither feigning interest nor suddenly snapping and screaming are an appropriate response to your boyfriend’s behavior. Stop pretending to enjoy something that bothers you, and tell him that you don’t like it. Ten texts an hour are a lot to get from anyone, much less when it’s a bunch of throwaway links to bottom-of-the-barrel content farms, but your boyfriend isn’t going to stop doing this if he doesn’t know it bothers you. This isn’t annoying behavior of some friend you have to pretend to get along with for your boyfriend’s sake. Tell him that you don’t like it and that you want him to stop. Be direct—don’t hint at it, and don’t “shrug it off.”

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I was with “Teddy” for three years. In that time, I caught him texting an ex, flirting with co-workers, hanging out with another ex, giving his number to female customers, and cheating on me with his classmate. Each time I caught him, he promised he would change. After the last straw, I kicked him out but stayed in touch. In every other aspect, he is a great person, but a bad boyfriend. Two years after our breakup I still periodically catch him telling stupid lies and I told him our weekly lunches and regular texting sessions were over. He got upset and told me it was my fault because I never gave him another “real chance” to get back together. I feel I did the right thing, but he always manages to make me feel bad. Was I wrong to cut him out?

—Breakup Sequel

No. You might even, in the future, slightly tighten your parameters of what a “great person” does to exclude extensive infidelity, an inability to change, chronic lying, and always managing to make you feel bad. Teddy is not a great person. Teddy is going to have to work hard to become a mediocre person, and there is no reason you should consider remaining friendly with him.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I am a woman who has known for a while now that I am attracted to women. Historically, I have only dated men and just got out of a five-year relationship with one. I want to explore my attraction to women further. My fear is that I may be attracted to women for the reasons a patriarchal society tells me to be. How do I know if I am truly attracted to women when I have only coveted their bodies? It seems reckless to “try it out” for a time by dating if I am not serious about my wants. Will my feelings become more clear to me over time? I would hate to enter into another relationship with a man because it is easier than dealing with or never exploring these feelings. However, I do not want to trivialize a person’s life because of my confusion. Is this a fetish?

—Could I Fall in Love With a Woman?

“Coveting someone’s body”—unless one is a serial killer planning on skinning someone for a trophy—is very much the same thing as being attracted to them. It is possible that you have absorbed potentially damaging ideas about women’s bodies from society writ large, but so do most people living today, and that hasn’t triggered an onslaught of patriarchy-induced lesbianism and bisexuality. Everyone who’s ever dated women has had to start by dating a first woman, and you’re not forbidden from trying just because you’ve only been with men before. You’ll find out if you’re attracted to women by going out with specific women and seeing where it goes. If you’re not wild about the very first woman you date, that doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed or have fetishized anybody. It just means you don’t click with her. There may be some women who aren’t interested in dating you if you haven’t already dated a woman. Those aren’t the women for you! There are plenty who will, and as long as you treat everyone you date with basic courtesy and respect, you’re great.

For what it’s worth, a “fetish” generally refers to a persistent fixation on a nonhuman object or a nonsexual part of the body; it has nothing to do with sexual orientation or an attraction to an entire gender. Whatever you’re experiencing has nothing to do with fetishism.

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