Judging books by their covers…

How much should one conform in order to get a job? A few years back now, I was asked by my alma mater to give a talk to young law students who had failed to get articles. I discussed my own experience, and outlined other options that are out there. After the talk, I mingled with students. One bloke came up to me. He had multiple piercings and very multicoloured hair in a kind of long mohawk. He told me that he had been unable to get articles at a firm, and that he suspected it had something to do with his appearance. I confirmed that this was very likely the cause of his jobless status. I thought of him when I read this post at Law.com.

I had some sympathy for the guy. On one occasion, while I was still a student, I dyed my hair purple as a dare. Of course, two days later, I got an interview with a very large law firm for a summer clerkship. I had to scrub and scrub and scrub to get that purple out before the interview. Oh well, purple didn’t look too good over strawberry blonde hair anyway.

I must also confess that I have multiple earrings and a tattoo. I used to take the earrings out for job interviews. Once I was in a job, no one ever said anything about the multiple earrings, even though I have worked at some conservative places. I suppose the earrings are tasteful. My Dad didn’t even realise I had quite so many for ages. The tattoo is small and on my lower back, so it is unlikely to be seen, except once when I bent over to pick up a box and my boss-at-the-time literally screamed when he saw it. I thought there was a spider on my shirt – but no, he’d just seen the tattoo. He didn’t mind (as long as I kept it hidden) but he was shocked because he “hadn’t thought I was a tattoo kind of girl.” I’m not sure what a “tattoo kind of girl” is, but it doesn’t sound good.

The only “dress code infringement” for which I’ve ever been told off at work was for wearing red shoes, which I thought was a bit tough. They were nice shoes, not tasteless ones. And they matched the top under my dark, conservative suit. I love red shoes. They cheer me up.

I knew one female lawyer who often wore low-cut tops. Appearances can be deceiving. She was very hardworking, as well as a devout Christian. But I noticed that some of the guys didn’t always take her seriously. She complained to me of this, and I gently suggested that perhaps she should dress more conservatively. “But I look very stylish!” she said. Which she did. Anyway, after one of our colleagues got slapped for mistaking the low-cut tops as an invitation, I think news got around. Further, once she had established the quality of her work, her reputation as a serious woman was entrenched.

There is a bit of a double standard in the law. It gives me the irrits that people will jump up and down about girl wearing a pair of nice red shoes and then brief a male barrister who dresses like a hobo. Torn and stained clothes and jabot, wig askew, smelly bar jacket. Yuk. With some of those guys, slobby seems to be a badge of honour. It’s a macho thing: I’m so awesome that I don’t have to worry about what I wear. My words speak for me. I once saw a barrister appear in the Supreme Court with a giant tear in the seat of his pants. You could see his skin and underwear underneath (although I didn’t look too closely; I was very embarrassed). Perhaps he had torn the trousers on the way in to court, and had no other option? I should give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose. But surely he’d put a piece of paper down his pants to cover up? Maybe no one told him. I certainly didn’t dare (I was very young at the time).

(I could tell the story about the time I ripped my skirt almost up to the hip when running to Practice Court and had to just keep on going, rip and all, but I think I’ll leave that to another day. But if it happens to you, the best thing to do is pretend it hasn’t happened and to put the fact out of your mind that you are exposing yourself to half the legal fraternity. As far as I am aware, no one noticed…at least, no one said anything…)

On the one hand, I think it’s good for lawyers to have some individuality. No one wants to have to deal with a boring automaton. Lawyers are human too. On the other hand, I can see that Mr Mohawk-and-Piercings was pushing the envelope a bit far. He looked extremely unusual, even in a laid-back university context. I suggested to him that perhaps he could tone it down a bit if he was really set on getting a job as a lawyer, and told him that firms had been prepared to accept my small oddities. But he wasn’t prepared to tone himself down. Last thing I heard, I don’t believe he ever got a job as a lawyer.

I guess the important thing is to look like you can be trusted to do a good job. If a client is going to freak out when they see you, or fail to take you seriously, that’s not good. Nevertheless, a little bit of individuality isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think firms should be too narrow-minded. They might find they miss out on some great employees.


Filed under barristers, courts, job interviews, jobs, law, law firms, society, solicitors

19 responses to “Judging books by their covers…

  1. LDU

    I had an interview right after my exams with a top tier firm on the very top levels on one of those very tall buildings in the very heart of the CBD for a paralegal position. I really wanted to get this job and spent hours on my coverletter. I did get an interview.

    The lady that was interviewing me asked me if I was wearing an Armani suit, when i replied in the positive she commented “that type of stuff is very noticed up here.” She also gave some tips “never leave your blazer on a chair” and “never loosen your tie” or ” always have your buttons done” and “don’t socialise with the partners” because I might get carried away.

    I instantly decided that I wouldn’t want to work in a firm with so much restrictions. So when i got the offer i turned it down and made up some silly excuse. I’ve now settled down as a paralegal in an old blokes sole-practice and its really relaxing and easy going between the two of us. He doesn’t care what suit i wear, or whether i leave my blazer on the chair, or whether i muck around with him. Pure bliss.

  2. A family and uni college friend had an issue with her dress, or more correctly, her footwear (runners) when she entered her workplace (a Collins St legal firm), even though she changed into "work shoes" once she got upstairs.

    She wore runners because she drove from her farm to Geelong, then caught the train to Melbourne. She was told that she couldn’t go through the lobby like that. She said "bugger it" and decided to enter and leave up the back way and use the stairs.

    In the end, the firm’s ethos and portfolio got to her no-BS manner and the reasons why she did law in the first place, so she quit, moved back to the farm, and did a part-time $20K-plus-car job giving legal advice to farmers, and was much happier as she felt more useful to people than doing the corporate law thing.

  3. fairlane

    Damn, and I just got my face tattooed! I guess being a Supreme Court Justice is definitely out. Oh well it’s probably for the best.

  4. My feeling is that for any job in life you have to play the part, there is no profession, apart from the theatre, where this is more the case than the Law. So if you want to be a lawyer then you have to wear the right costume when the scene demands it. Your student with all of the piercings and the silly haircut clearly does not have a serious commitment to his chosen profession or the street smarts to realise this simple fact.
    As you have demonstrated in the post any person can push the envelope a little but you do have to get that envelope into the postal system first.

  5. fairlane

    I imagine Iain that eventually this complete lack of professionalism will become more and more acceptable. Hell, they’ll have to accept it because half the kids in the U.S. have tattoos on their necks.

    I have tattoos myself, but I have them where you cannot see them unless you “know” me.

    Of course I got them for myself, and not to show off. Nothing says “take me seriously” like a skull on the side of your neck or a giant hoop through the nose. White kids trying to be “Tribal.” Hilarious. “Check out my new Saab dad bought, and look at my new Thunderbird tat.”

  6. LDU, your story reminded me of a guy I knew who worked at one of the “Big 6” firms as a paralegal. One day, all the articled clerks were taken past on a tour. As they approached, this guy’s supervisor hissed, “Put on your jacket, man!” So he did. Yep, it was the no blazer over the chair rule. I’d never heard of such a thing before!

    Dave, I can’t believe they made a fuss about sneakers. But then again, I can. After I quit, I went to meet someone in the foyer of a large firm. I was dressed in jeans and I got some really big glares from the receptionist. I could have been a client, for goodness sakes.

    Fairlane, similarly I got my tattoo for myself, to express a particular principle, not to show off. I don’t know anyone else with this tattoo. I have considered getting one on my ankle, but on the inside so that it’s not obvious. I would get a turtle, I think.

  7. AV

    I have an earring and a tattoo. If an employer asked me to take out the earring during work hours, I would take it out during work hours. It’s really not that big a sacrifice. (The tattoo is usually hidden under a shirt anyway.)

    The belief that a person who looks professional is professional is of course stupid and irrational. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stupidity and irrationality in the world, and you have to pick your battles. Discrimination on the basis of religious belief (or lack thereof), sexual orientation, ethnic background or the fact that one is cohabiting with one’s partner–these are worth fighting against. Discrimination against earrings is not.

  8. AV, yes, I agree, you have to pick your battles. Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexuality etc is far more serious. Likewise, I would have taken my earrings out during work hours had I been asked to do so. I’m pleased that no one asked, though.

  9. fairlane

    I agree AV that it is silly to worry about a person’s appearance rather than what they bring to the table morally, intellectually etc. But the simple fact is if you’re in front of Court and you have twelve earrings and three nose rings and your arms are sleeved in tattoos, people are going to make assumptions about you. The same applies in job interviews.

    And I often wonder about those people when they “grow up.” I used to work for an activist group that lobbied against energy companies. One of my co-workers was “Goth.” She had at least 40 tattoos, and some of them were huge. Both arms sleeved, her legs, her back, her neck, and they were silly, at least I thought so. Tattoos of Beetle Juice and Frankenstein, and skulls and crosses. And I couldn’t help but think, “Damn you’ve really pigeonholed yourself there. What if you decide you don’t like “Goth” anymore?”

    It would be great if we lived in a world where people didn’t judge one another, but we live in a world of people. At the same time I really question this idea of “I’m just expressing my individuality” when it comes across so contrived and is obviously attention seeking. “Why is everyone staring at me?” “Well, you’re a white guy and you have an elephant’s femur in your nose, and you have the Chinese character for “sweet and sour pork” tattooed on your neck.”

    Who you are makes you an “individual” not tattoos or nose rings or blue hair. I’d say in many ways those things make you “mainstream” in today’s world. Everyone has tattoos.

    My aunt, who’s 57, was going to get one while they were in Florida a few weeks ago.

  10. pmott

    Great post but very narrow view of being a lawyer.
    The community legal centre movement is full of lawyers who are assessed on their merits not their wardrobe.

    Sure some lawyers need to go to court, many do not & costume would be less of an issue for them.

    In my early days as a paralegal, representing tenants at the tenancy tribunal, I struggled with the notion of dressing-up. It seemed to conform to the aspects of the legal system we were trying to change. However, I decided there was no point making myself the issue when it was the tenant’s case that mattered. My compromise was to don a shirt but never wear a tie (I have never owned one).

  11. It goes almost without saying that community legal centres, corporations and other non-firm like legal entities have less strict dress codes. That is one thing I made very clear in my talk to the undergraduates – there are heaps of different jobs, and firms certainly aren’t the only option.

    I think if you work in a community legal centre or inhouse, people prefer it if you look more approachable and more human. That’s one of the very good things about working in that kind of job.

  12. Yep, the yellow jabot – blech. I’ve seen a few in my time (not just on blokes, either. Chicks go for the makeup everywhere variety). I’m sure robes allow barristers to get away with all sorts of stuff no solicitor would be seen dead wearing.

    I’ve formed the view that cleanliness is the most important clothing quality – and one that lots of people ignore. Phooey if a bloke doesn’t have a tie or a woman wears a low-cut top. Are their clothes clean and pressed? Is their hair clean? Have they made sure to slap on the B.O killer?

    Pretty basic stuff, really.

  13. (As far as I am aware, no one noticed…at least, no one said anything…)

    LE, everyone noticed. Believe me.

    Another great read, exploring the issue. I can remember dressing down for job interviews after I dropped out of high school. I was on the dole but I had plans. Big plans. Playing guitar, going to the beach, cricket, the pictures. Who had time for a job? Shallow? Acqua poco profondo.

    But then after a few months when I actually wanted a job, I couldn’t get one. I went from no effort to a little effort at interviews. And it shocked me that it wasn’t enough.

    Mr Mohawk-and-Piercings would have to tone it down in order to get a job in a law firm, I’d imagine. But if he’s unwilling to compromise, that narrows the field for him. That’s the reality.

  14. SL, yeah, the jabot stained with foundation and/or lipstick ain’t great either.

    I’m in agreement with you – I don’t care about style so long as a person is clean. I once had to wear someone else’s dirty, smelly jabot and robes, and thereafter I became very fastidious. When I left the Court, I made sure my robes and jabot were freshly laundered for my replacement.

    Towards the end of my pregnancy I ended up wearing reasonably smart black tracksuit pants to work. No one noticed. Then I wished I’d worn them earlier!

    Lad Litter, I suspect you’re right. At least I was wearing opaque black stockings; it could have been far worse and far more revealing. As it was, I probably provided the day’s excitement for a number of gentlemen in the court. For a few years thereafter, I actually carried a little sewing kit in my handbag just in case it happened again.

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  17. Old&Tired

    The hobo thing is from the 60’s, when not caring about how you dressed was a political statement. However one falls into bad habits as a result, often to the despair of one’s offspring. One of my sons works in fashion in reaction to me.

    Judges and magistrates instinctively take you less seriously if you wear a bad suit. They can’t helpo it. I know because they are my contemporaries. However I do not believe you could see the shabby barrister’s undies when he was appearing in the Supreme Court. That’s what gowns are for.

  18. Ah, I should have specified that the barrister was appearing in the Practice Court for a bail application, so no gown was worn. Perhaps he forgot that his gown wasn’t there to cover up the hole.

  19. i am also a law student in U.S i am not satisfied with the articles am getting . what should i do ?

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