What Does a Lawyer Look Like?

By Nikki Harris
NALP Bulletin+
February 2022

Is it time to update grooming policies in the legal community? With tattoos becoming more mainstream, piercings being more visible, and CROWN Act legislation getting passed, should legal employers revisit what it means to look like a lawyer? Grooming codes were created to make legal employees look professional and somewhat uniform, but there has been a societal shift.

The February 2022 cover of Bulletin+
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A career advisor’s role includes preparing law students for job interviews. The focus is often on grades, interview questions, and application materials. An important part that gets less attention is appearance. We want students to “look the part.” But what does that mean? I created a checklist of “dos and don’ts” so that students would know which conventions — i.e., a traditional dark, tailored suit and white dress shirt — would help them look professional while attending interviews and work-related functions. We want interviewers to focus on students’ accomplishments and qualifications, not appearances.

As students prepare for what could be their first professional interviews, they ask a variety of questions about appearance: hairstyle, shoes, jewelry, and more. When I was in law school, my career advisor told me to dress conservatively like a stereotypical librarian – hair pulled back, dark suit, white blouse, low heels, neutral pantyhose, and minimal makeup and jewelry. I followed that advice in order to play it safe. I approach advising law students a bit differently. I provide information and offer suggestions. When students ask how they should appear during interviews, usually they want to fit in with the employer’s culture. I like to counsel law students by asking questions, so that they draw their own conclusions. Some sample questions include:

  • Who is your audience?
  • Who are the employer’s clients?
  • Did you look at the employer’s website to see what people look like and wear?
  • Is the employer a large or boutique firm, nonprofit organization, judge, or government agency?
  • What image do you want to project?

A different conversation occurs when students DON’T want to fit the status quo. New questions have arisen regarding natural hair texture, color, and styles; tattoos; and piercings. How do you advise students who DON’T want to change their appearance to fit in with the traditional corporate culture? That’s when conversations occur regarding pride, identity, authenticity, and culture. I try to provide a safe space for students to speak freely and ask me anything, including my natural hair journey that began 2.5 years ago. I guide students by asking questions, such as:

  • Have you researched the employer’s culture and reputation?
  • Why do you want to work at that organization?
  • If an employer wouldn’t accept you because of your appearance, would you want to work there?
  • Have you researched employers with more inclusive appearance policies?
  • What do you want out of your career?

These questions will likely continue to be relevant as society changes and legal employers play catch-up, as evidenced by discrimination lawsuits and legislation. As attitudes change in the law, they need to change in Human Resources policies and sensitivity training.

Concern 1: Hair

Conversations about natural hair in professional settings have been a growing topic in the media, courts, and state legislatures. Straight hair has been the societal norm but now a growing number of people have stopped straightening their hair and embraced their natural hair texture. Documentaries (“Good Hair”), movies (“School Daze”), television shows (“How to Get Away with Murder”), and an Oscar-winning short film (“Hair Love,”) have addressed the topic of Black hair. The Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair aka “CROWN” Act  is a national movement to fight race-based hair discrimination. As of November 2021, only 14 states have enacted CROWN Act legislation. The 2019 Dove CROWN Research Study found that the 1,000+ Black women surveyed feel that their hair is targeted by their employers and they are rated as less ready for job performance.

Hair discrimination is not just about Black people’s natural hair. White students have discussed straightening their kinky or curly hair in order to “look professional” for job interviews. Other controversial hair areas include nontraditional colors like unicorn pink and Billie Eilish green. Don’t forget about trendy, partially shaven hairstyles. A person’s hair should not bear any weight in deciding whether they are qualified to do their job, but an employer may not see it that way.

Concern 2: Tattoos and Piercings

An August 2021 Ipsos poll found that 41% of Millennials have at least one tattoo, compared to just 13% of Baby Boomers. Students need to remember who is doing the hiring. Most students assure me that they will cover their tattoos with clothing or makeup when they go on job interviews or work for legal employers.

The challenge occurs when students DON’T want to cover up their tattoos. Reasons include freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and cultural attitudes toward tattoos shifting in the younger demographic. Piercings and plug earrings (gauges and tunnels) fall into a similar category as tattoos. Some piercings are easily removable, and others are not. The body piercing industry is less regulated than the tattoo industry; therefore, statistical data is more difficult to find on this topic. Tattoos and piercings are becoming more common and while one day they may not be a consideration, today they still are (in conservative fields).

Where Do We Go From Here?

Appearance does not dictate how law students will succeed as attorneys. Employers must ensure that their professional appearance policies are addressing today’s views and laws. Employers should be proactive and make their grooming policies more inclusive to embrace nontraditional forms of appearance that do not interfere with job performance, safety, or ability. Embracing a new standard requires buy-in from the old guard (aka, shareholders and partners) and clients. Also, law students are adults — they have to make their own decisions and handle consequences. Ultimately, career advisors want law students to secure employment, and we have to find the best way to help them succeed while also helping them be true to themselves until the rules of the game change.

Nikki Harris is Associate Director and Public Interest Advisor of Career Development (Currently Acting Dean of Career Development) at the William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada – Las Vegas. This article was submitted on behalf of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Section.

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