At work, we recently started adding our gender pronouns to our email signatures. When a progressive female colleague expressed reluctance to comply with the new policy, at first, I didn’t get it. Then she explained: Her name, as per Google, is about 17x more likely to be given to a baby assigned male at birth than a baby assigned female. Basically, anyone she emailed without meeting assumed she was a male attorney. And getting to introduce herself to adversaries as man lawyer came with privileges and benefits she wasn’t eager to forgo.
From the beginning of my legal career, male legal adversaries have had a problem with my “aggressive” attitude. And now that I supervise a team of non-cis men, I notice patterns of treatment that cis male staff members do not endure. Common rhetorical questions and comments include:
- “Why do you have to be so difficult?”
- “Why are you being aggressive?”
- “Let me speak to your supervisor!”
- “Can’t you just calm down?”
- “Just be quiet for a second!”
- “Just relax, okay?”
While I admit to having higher than normal levels of anxiety in my personal dealings, in professional adversarial situations, I remain calm and composed. And the calmer I seem, the more attacking comments about my “hysteria” I elicit.
On occasion, a disgruntled male adversary doesn’t even bother with coded language. For example, a broker accused of discrimination referred to me as an “aggressive little girl.” A few years ago, a male attorney dropped a page-long footnote in a legal brief personally disparaging me for my aggressive litigation tactics in other unrelated cases.
And, my all-time favorite incident: once, the principal of a large corporate landlord misdirected an email intended for his attorney to my office:
I am getting to the end of my rope with this [insert my name]. We need to take an action against her in every way shape and form. I want my money…and if there’s anything we can do to get barred from working here since she’s a lying stupid piece of garbage I want to act on it.
Respectfully Yours, [oh the irony]
Once I get passed the initial shock of these kinds of comments, I try to take pride in the actual translation. “Aggressive little girl” really means, “you’re really going to insist on doing your job competently, huh?”
In honor of my attempt to celebrate these victories, I want to share my favorite “aggressive little girl” moment—which wasn’t so much a “moment” but 15 hours of physically torturous insanity. And, it all started because, I admit, I was being a little too “aggressive.”
. . .
A few years ago, a group of Bronx tenants asked my office to bring a case to remove their particularly sadistic landlord from control of their building. In New York City, the State Property Law contains much underutilized tool called “Section 7-A.” Section 7-A requires at least one-third of the tenants in a building to ask the court to remove their landlord where conditions exist that threaten their health and safety. In this building, we had near 100% participation.
During the late summer, the owner had sent unlicensed workers into apartments ostensibly to repair dilapidated bathrooms. Instead, the workers had torn out the sinks, bathtubs and toilets while demolishing walls containing decades old layers of lead paint. Families with young children and the elderly spent the fall season with no bathrooms. Justifiable panic set in when young children began testing positive for lead poisoning.
As the winter advanced, the tenants reported inadequate heat and hot water. The owner had torn out some of the tenants’ kitchens (using a strategy similar to the “bathroom demolition project”), and a number of apartments had no cooking gas.
After interviewing the tenants and collecting evidence in mid-November, I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend throwing tenants’ narratives together into a 300-page motion, listing the reasons why the owner should lose control of his building. The plan was to get into court before the holiday-related court closure in December, and, of course, before the lack of heat would prove even more unbearable.
Before we arrive at the dramatic part of the store, bear with me through some civil procedure law and elementary math: The 7-A law requires that the owner receive “personal notice” of the lawsuit five days before the court date. So after drafting the papers, I went to court, asked the judge for the earliest date possible (nine days away), and then set about the task of getting the papers to the landlord with at least five days of notice.
Typically, I would have just dropped the papers at the landlord’s office personally (always a fun encounter). Customarily, even if the owner isn’t personally at his office an employee will accept service on his behalf.T his time, given the high stakes and the fact that the motion was 300-pages (and we needed to serve three copies), I called a professional process server, and my office paid him about $150.00 to handle it.
Early on a Thursday morning, the process server, George, called me to say that the owner had instructed his office building’s door person to restrict access to employees only. Even if the process server could get passed the door person, the secretary stated through the intercom system that she would not accept service on behalf of the owner. George had already been trying for a few days.
As per the process server: We could not serve the owner at his business.
As per the law: There were only two options.
- “Mail and Nail”: Make another futile attempt at serving the owner at his office, adhere the papers to his office door (somehow, since we couldn’t even get upstairs past the door person), and then mail the papers; OR
- Personal Service: Find the owner somewhere else, and serve him personally (hoping he hadn’t taken a vacation outside of New York City).
Some quick math revealed that Option 1 wasn’t an option at all: Sure, we still had more than five days before the court date but when service of the papers involves a snail mailing, the Civil Procedure Law of New York requires an additional five days of notice (thanks, USPS). We simply didn’t have the days.
Onto Option 2: Finding the owner personally, while not impossible, seemed very unlikely. The process server suggested staking out the owner’s home early in the morning before he left for work or catching him on his way home, late in the afternoon Unfortunately, good old George didn’t have the time. And, even if he did have the time, he charged $100.00 per hour.
Also mitigating against Option 2: Since court would be the following Friday, we had a deadline of Sunday to get the papers to the owner personally. But, you can’t serve papers on Sunday as per New York Civil Procedure. And, making matters even more difficult, because the landlord purported to be an observant Jew, we could not serve him during the Sabbath. More bad math news: In December, the sun was setting at 4:30 PM. Since this was Thursday morning, we less than 32 hours left before the Sabbath started. At sunset on Friday, game over.
I called my boss and we agreed to deliver the bad news to the tenants—no court until January. The owner would have another month to run around torturing the tenants without any court supervision. I reached for my phone to call the tenant leader but then put it back down. There had to be another option.
Before I called the tenants, my then-girlfriend suggested I go on a run a clear my head. As I breathed in the frigid December air, the answer became clear. Nothing in the law would prevent me from conducting my own stakeout. I cancelled my plans for the day, and started plotting. Time was ticking.
A frantic Google search revealed a YouTube video of the owner’s home—a brownstone on the upper west side of Manhattan adjacent to the frigid Hudson river. In the video captured the winter before, a different group of tenants protested outside the landlord’s home, holding homemade signs demanding heat. The owner never emerged, and I could see from the video, that he had erected high fencing around his property. Blinking lights attached to modern-looking surveillance cameras pointed at the sidewalk in front of his little fortress.
The landlord knows me by face, and so, during my stakeout, I would have to stay out of sight of those cameras. If he did come out of his home, I’d have to let him open the gate to the fence surrounding his compound, emerge, and lock the gate behind him. If I pounced too soon, he could retreat inside before I could serve him.
If I caught him on his way home, I’d have to serve him before he got inside the gate. I knew that if he saw me, he would run. Since I would be numb from the cold and weighed down with 900 pages of legal papers, giving chase seemed like a losing proposition.
Rushing to get to his house, I decided to leave the details for later. I threw on whatever winter clothes I could find early in the winter season, and headed uptown on the “1/2/3” train. The rush of adrenaline associated with my first stakeout gave me a false sense of confidence that my body would withstand the elements.
When I arrived, I selected a pillar belonging to the building just to the west of his home, where I knew the cameras wouldn’t capture my presence. There, I crouched down with my pile of legal papers stowed in a cloth shopping bag beside me. Within 30 minutes of standing still, the excitement had worn off, and my limbs had gone completely numb.
Nearing sunset, a colleague came by to offer me a chance to take a bathroom break at a nearby book store. We huddled together and watched as domestic workers, food delivery people, and others came and went from the home. In the most exciting moment of the day, the owner’s daughter came out in a fancy fur coat, likely to meet friends that evening.
After seven hours of shivering behind the column, neighbors began to ask if I wanted to come inside to make a phone call or for a cup of hot tea (white aggressive little girl privilege, of course). “No, I’m just waiting for someone,” I said (not a lie). I suspected they thought I might be waiting for an ex-boyfriend in a mildly charming but actually creepy way.
Around 7:00 PM, two solid hours past sunset, a large black SUV pulled up in front of the owner’s house.
The tinted windows concealed the driver’s face but he/she/they sat in front of the house for about 20 minutes with the car idling. Total paranoia crept in as my body shook harder from fear. He was probably just an Uber driver waiting for a late passenger. And then, the driver emerged—a man in his 40s, tall, broad, dressed in a black trench coat with a black bolo hat to match. He seemed unaffected by the cold as he crossed his arms and leaned up against his car confidently. He stared directly my way with his bolo hat just revealing his intense eyes. I tried to look away but he started to approach me. I had nowhere to hide.
“Are you [insert my name]?”
“yes, that’s me.”
“Oh good. I’m your process server, George. I felt bad about your situation so I brought the papers along hoping to catch this guy on his way home from work. I have your papers right her in the car.”
I let out a breath.
“Where’s your car?” George asked me, gesturing to the street and looking confused. When George had mentioned a stakeout as our best option, he never imagined that I didn’t have a car. Concerned, George invited me to wait inside his SUV with heated seats.
After 30 minutes of basically molesting George’s heated seats with every conceivable pat of my body, talking to George about his insane process server stories, and letting him handle the surveillance of the compound, I stopped shaking. But was I warm enough to consider returning to my perch behind the column of the neighboring building? George was having none of it: “It’s way too late. Go home. Come back before sunrise if you want to catch him before the Sabbath.” It didn’t take much more convincing. George dropped me at the train and I headed downtown.
That night, our office was having our annual Holiday party, and my colleagues implored me to come enjoy a round of drinks before the open bar ended at 9:00 PM. I chose a martini, hoping the pure, unadulterated liquor would either warm me or make me forget how cold and defeated I felt. A colleague ushered over a second martini just as I finished the drink a bit too quickly, and for the first time since the morning, I relaxed. My supervisor (also a neighbor) handed me her car keys “go back tomorrow in my car once you’ve sobered up.”
I stumbled home around midnight, a bit of a mess. To my girlfriend’s dismay, I spent an hour over the garbage can attempting (and failing) to release the martinis from my digestive system. Before passing out, I set my alarm for 5:00 AM. Surely, in four hours, I’d be sober and more digestively comfortable.
When the alarm clock rang, my girlfriend, who had initially supported this insanity, implored me to stay home. But despite my poor decision making of the prior night, I stumbled out the door at 5:15 AM before I could field any further protests.
My head spun and my stomach ached during the dark frigid walk to my supervisor’s car. I dared not hydrate my hangover away; there would be no bathroom in my future. I found a parking spot right in front of the owner’s compound, shut the engine off to preserve gas, and lowered the seat to a completely flat position to conceal my presence. Of course, that meant lifting my head every few seconds to observe the front door.
I watched the sun rise over the Hudson around 7:00 AM, and braced myself for a long day. The car had become nearly as cold as the outside (minus the wind), and I periodically turned the engine on to warm up. But, for fear of running out of gas and drawing attention to myself, I mostly left the car off.
A colleague even joined me for an hour that morning, but as soon as she left, I realized that my body urgently needed to eliminate the remaining toxins from my two martini dinner. The pain in my stomach became truly unbearable about 10:00 AM, and I contemplated giving up. My supervisor’s kids had various toys and empty drink containers in the back. I wondered if I could fashion a temporary bathroom but I reconsidered, not wanting to simultaneously miss the chance to serve the owner and ruin my supervisor’s only vehicle.
Given my stomach pains, I started reasoning that I had made a huge mistake. The landlord probably wasn’t even in New York—rich people go skiing for the weekend or escape to Florida during the winter. What had I been thinking? Okay, sure, I made an aggressive (or just mathematically stupid) error in selecting the court date, but now, I had wasted two valuable days freezing my ass off. A responsible lawyer would have already re-drafted and re-filed the motion. One overly aggressive move made worse by a second.
And then, just as I began to truly consider leaving, the owner emerged with his brief case. It was 10:17 AM.
I waited the excruciating 45 seconds for the landlord to descend the steps of his brownstone, go through the compound fence, lock it, and step onto the sidewalk. I opened the car door, literally tumbled out of the car in front to him, thrust the 900-pages at his body, and, said, “you’ve been served.”
The owner looked shaken as the papers fell to the ground. “Those are for you, take them,” I demanded in a voice that didn’t sound like my own, as I pointed to the mountain of papers on the sidewalk.
He looked to his left and then his right. I remembered, that, in front of his neighbors, he might actually experience the otherwise elusive emotion of shame. He scooped up the papers, and ran inside.
Lamentably, there was no time to ask to use the bathroom.
. . .
When the tenants and I arrived in court the following week, the owner’s attorney approached me in the hallway. “You know my client didn’t get served. He never does. So we’ll first be having a hearing on service as a preliminary matter.”
A challenge to service could delay our trial on the merits for weeks or months. Classic delay tactic.
“Did you read the affidavit of service?” I asked the attorney, thrusting a copy aggressively in his face. I had created a detailed narrative of my trials and tribulations for the pleasure of the court.
“Read it,” I demanded.
I could see opposing counsel had no intention of reading anything so I offered him the Cliff’s Notes:
“Your client is a dirt bag who dodged my process server. It cost us $150.00. So I waited outside his house for 15 hours personally over the course of two days. And if you challenge service, I am going to tell the court how your client dodged service in bad faith, and then take off my boot and show the judge the frost bite on my left big toe.”
Opposing counsel stared at me. “You’re not serious?”
“Deadly, serious,” I told him.
Not sure what got into me, I had one last aggressive move left: I dramatically put down my court file, hunched down, and began to take off my left boot.
“I’m going to show you right now,” I told the attorney.
“Maybe we should subpoena the National Weather service to see if it was really that cold last week,” he half joked. I kept unlacing my boot. I was down to my sock when he protested: “Stop. Put your shoe back on. We concede service. We concede.”
Thank goodness. I was completely bluffing on the frost bite.
Another aggressive move that I wouldn’t come to regret.
. . .
The rest of the story is a long one–a story that is still technically going on. All I can say for now is that the tenants fought like hell, won the day, and would go onto to win an unprecedented victory during the court date to follow. Although I’m no longer their lawyer, I feel humbled and privileged to have represented them.