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.