How to Give Advice, and Not Belittle, Women Attorneys
In the latest episode of "Women and Body Shaming in the Legal Industry," we have a slide from a memo presented by Loyola Law School's externship director to law students, which Above the Law shared. It says, in relevant part: "I really don't need to mention that cleavage and stiletto heels are not appropriate office wear (outside of ridiculous lawyer TV shows), do I? Yet I'm getting complaints from supervisors ... "
Look, I'm not going say that I'm immune from this -- I've given my share of fashion advice on this blog (for summer associates, OCI interviews and office parties). But, I'd like to think I did it in a reasoned, low-key manner -- and oh yeah, this is a blog, so it's written in part for entertainment. It's not the same as advice from your school, employer, or judge, for that matter.
But here's why this memo doesn't sit well with me. Its tone is belittling, the advice is directed only toward women, and it doesn't address the real issue -- that as women, we are judged on a different spectrum than male attorneys. So how should we handle being held up to a different standard than our male counterparts?
The Reality of the Legal Industry
Let's be clear: Women don't have it easy in the legal industry. We're going to law school in large numbers, but not making it up the legal career ladder in the same proportion. Much of the "how you dress" debate lies in large part on generational issues. And, as long as you have (mostly) white, male judges on the bench who think that women should wear skirts and pantyhose -- guess what? That's what you should wear. Does that make me, or you, any less feminist? No, it makes us want to win our cases on the merits, not lose them because the judge couldn't get past the fact that our suits have pants.
Play It Safe
Because we work in a conservative industry that is slow to change, it's safer to just adopt a uniform than to try to be a fashion icon -- and this is coming from a former lawyer turned fashion designer, turned fashion blogger. Just as you need to know your audience when you're writing your brief or drafting your arguments, the same goes with your visual presentation. The cards are already stacked against you -- don't give anyone a reason to discount you for something irrelevant. Keep the focus on your intellect and professionalism. It's disappointing that we need to "play it safe" but it just depends on what your cause is, and ethically, our clients come first.
More Women Role Models
With so many more fashion options, it's easy to understand why some women may have a fashion faux pas here or there. Perhaps women wouldn't need so much professional fashion advice if we had more actual, real-life (as opposed to TV) women lawyer role models to look up to.
And therein lies the problem. Maybe our schools, employers and judges should be more concerned with the advancement of women in the profession, and less on how we look while advancing. Until then, if we can take our attire off the table, maybe we can talk about making changes in the industry that really matter.
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Editor's Note, March 5, 2015: This post was first published in March 2014. It has since been updated.
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