Closing with Emotion: The Differential Impact of Male Versus Female Attorneys Expressing Anger in Court

Male attorneys expressing anger are more likely to be viewed positively (as influential, commanding, and effective), whereas female attorneys expressing anger are more likely to be viewed negatively (as shrill, overly emotional, and ineffective).

Introduction

The gender gap persists in the legal profession. Although as of 2017, 52.7% of matriculating U.S. law students are women, only 18% of equity partners in “Big Law” – the largest and most prestigious law firms – are women. Moreover, juror bias against women attorneys has been documented to lead to lower rates of success in court for female attorneys.

Research outside of the legal profession has shown that the act of expressing anger increases a man’s influence but decreases a woman’s influence. However, within the legal profession, all attorneys are advised to express anger as a way to gain credibility and effectively win cases.

Some evidence has shown that if a woman provides an explanation for her source of anger, she will be less likely to be penalized for it. In this study, researchers investigated how the expression of anger (in a gruesome murder case in which the attorney’s anger may seem justified) would impact how hirable or effective an attorney appeared to be, and whether this varied based on gender.

Findings

Male attorneys expressing anger were more likely to be viewed positively (as influential, commanding, and effective), whereas female attorneys expressing anger were more likely to be viewed negatively (as shrill, overly emotional, and ineffective).

  • Male attorneys were more likely to be hired and more likely to be perceived as effective if they expressed anger, as compared to when they delivered their statements in a neutral tone. In contrast, female attorneys were less likely to be hired and less likely to be perceived as effective if they expressed anger, as compared to when they delivered their statements in a neutral tone. The attorneys were evaluated on a 7-point Likert scale.
  • People were more likely to cite the positive aspects of anger (having conviction and power) to justify hiring an angry male attorney, and were more likely to use the negative aspects of anger (being shrill and obnoxious) to justify not hiring an angry female attorney, although the attorneys delivered the exact same closing statement.

The findings in this study have significant implications for the universal advice given to attorneys about expressing anger as a way to win cases. It shows that certain strategies for persuasion hurt women but help men, and may disadvantage female attorneys in promotion and career advancement. Future research should explore how other potential factors that might impact the effectiveness of anger expression for men and women – such as the attorney’s age, ethnicity, or personality – impact hireability.

Methodology

In a series of three experiments, researchers examined whether expressions of anger in court affected how an attorney was perceived (in terms of their effectiveness, hireability, etc.), and whether this varied based on gender.

The first experiment recruited 113 psychology undergraduates who were randomly assigned to watch one of four videos in which an attorney (female or male) presented the same closing argument (in a neutral or angry tone). Students received course credit for their participation. The performance of the actors was rehearsed and tailored to ensure comparable level of emotionality, and the case presented involved a particularly gruesome murder so that the reason for the attorney’s anger seemed clear and appropriate. Participants were asked to rate how likely they would be to hire the attorney on a 7-point scale. They were also asked to rate the attorney on a series of negative traits (shrill, biased, overly emotional, self-righteous, irritating, overreacting, grating, obnoxious, harsh, vengeful, hysterical, and dramatic) and positive traits (commanding, self-possessed, strong, confident, knowledgeable, convincing, powerful, convicted, competent, persuasive, influential, charismatic, likable, and passionate), all of which were presented in a randomized order.

In the second experiment, 220 participants were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and randomly assigned to watch one of the four videos from experiment 1. They were compensated $1 for their participation. This second experiment replicated the procedures of the first experiment with a larger sample size that comprised a more diverse sample of non-student adults. Additionally, participants were asked to evaluate the degree to which they perceived the display of anger as appropriate for the setting.

In the third experiment, 273 additional participants were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform and randomly assigned to watch one of 12 videos in which 6 actors (3 women and 3 men) gave the same closing statement in either a neutral or angry tone. These participants were also compensated $1 for their participation. In addition to evaluating the hireability of the attorney (as in Study 1), and the appropriateness of anger in the courtroom (as in Study 2), these participants were also asked to evaluate the attorneys by their perceived effectiveness in arguing the case on a 7-point scale.

Intersectionality

Related GAP Studies