By Tyeesha Dixon • May 21, 2011•Writers in Residence
As summer rolls around and law students begin their summer gigs, we all begin to question whether or not the attire we think is work appropriate is actually work appropriate (see, e.g., the Chicago Bar Association’s What Not to Wear Fashion Show). While it’s a problem both men and women face (especially those guys who like to add a little flair to the plain black suit), one question that pops into my mind is whether or not legal employers expect female counsel to wear makeup and straight hair as part of the business dress code.
It’s a question that female attorneys (for the most part) face uniquely, but if you’re wondering, you are certainly not alone. I polled several female law students from different legal backgrounds, races, and law schools to get their views on whether or not they feel pressured to wear makeup (and pull the Chi through their hair) before stepping into professional legal environments:
I feel like looking professional is equated with wearing makeup and doing your hair a certain way. It’s annoying that you feel like you have to conform even though in your general life you feel comfortable with your appearance.
-Latin-American rising 3L working at a law firm this summer. The same woman straightened her hair for the firm interviewing process, after reading a study that women with curly hair are perceived as “more frivolous” than those with straight hair. The student also noticed that she received no offers from firms for which she left her hair curly for the initial interview.
I felt like that was part of what it meant to dress appropriately to court.
-Graduating 3L, referring to wearing makeup for her argument before an appellate court.
I wear makeup for interviews because I read somewhere that employers assume that women have more money-making potential. I like my hair straight, but I guess you could say the general professional look is straight hair, unless it’s well kept another way. I think the standard is straight hair or hair that’s pulled back.
-African-American graduating 3L, who continues to wear makeup for interviews despite the fact that she doesn’t feel like she’s treated any differently without it on.
I think that the pressure to have straight hair and wear make up to work is directly correlated with the "status" of the job. Meaning, the more (white) male dominated the field, the more likely black women feel pressured to conform to traditional American standards of beauty. That is why this issue usually comes up in Corporate America.
-Rising 3L dedicated to a career of public service.
I don't feel pressured to wear make-up or wear my hair relaxed because I'm in a legal setting. I think a partner could care less about how my face or hair looks. I do think that being in NYC and being in a firm setting together create a social pressure to be on top of your game appearance wise, and this can often mean going with what is trendy or hot whether that is designer bags, certain shoes, or straight hair. It really depends whether you are the type to play into these preferences (no-judgment). I personally will be wearing make-up everyday and have opted for straight hair, but that's because I think it's what makes me look my best.
-Rising 3L working as a summer associate at a highly ranked New York law firm.
I think the pressure to wear makeup is very individual and separate from the hair issue. If you aren't a makeup person, and believe you look fine without it in professional settings (regardless of the specific field), I doubt you are going to feel compelled to wear makeup. I doubt also that anyone will care, unless you routinely come into the office looking tired and haggard, in which case not wearing makeup perhaps indicates poor decision-making skills (I kid ... sort of). ...
As for hair, i think this is more of hot-button issue because it is a more salient concern. I have natural hair that I work into a neat little twisty bit for work. Looks fine and, in my opinion, is nothing note- or comment-worthy. I found last summer, however, while working for a government agency that people noticed my hair a lot and were not afraid to make comment. One individual even told me that he and his colleague had a discussion about my hair, how long they thought it was, and how i managed to produce the twist. They were definitely curious about it, but not in an uncomfortable way. I did not feel pressured to have straight hair because i knew it was simply not feasible. All i could do was try to present the best me, in all my natural-haired glory.
-Rising African-American 3L who ditched the relaxer many moons ago.