By Susan Smith Blakely • April 09, 2016•Careers, Other Career Issues
There are many challenges for women lawyers, and I write and speak about most of them. However, this is a new one. Apparently not looking like a lawyer is considered to be a problem by some women in the profession, as reported in a recent blog on Above the Law (ATL).
Before you say, "How can this happen?," remember that our profession has been around for a very long time. For most of that 200-year history, lawyers all looked alike. They all were men. It has only been the last 50 years that has changed all that. Today, equal numbers of women and men are graduating from law school, the professional landscape has changed, and there are many other acceptable attire choices for women professionals.
Even with that progress, however, there always will be the ill-informed and not-so-socially-astute observer who, in addressing a woman lawyer, might say, "You sure do not look like a lawyer." In fact, you can pretty much bet on hearing that once or twice during your career if you are a young woman lawyer, especially.
The issue is not whether you will hear it but how you will respond to it. Most likely it is not the gender slight that the ATL blog implied but, rather, just an ill-conceived observation. Treat it like that. One lawyer quoted by ATL recommended that you respond lightheartedly by asking what the commenter meant by his or her observation. I agree. By saying, "I am not sure what you mean by that" with a smile and a touch of humor, you elicit a response and start a conversation that might be very informative for both of you. There is a lot of misinformation about women lawyers, and you should take the opportunity to clear up some of it.
If, however, the comment was meant as a slight, I am sure we can agree that women lawyers today should not be discounted and undervalued because they do not look like and dress like male lawyers. When I started practicing law in the late 1970's when there were very few female role models for young women lawyers, most women lawyers dressed in pin stripe suits, oxford cloth blouses and little bow ties to look as much like the men as possible. For the record, I thought the women looked silly in those wannabe get-ups, and I refused to follow suit --- pun intended!
Fortunately, that style of dress for women lawyers was short-lived. Today there is a lot of latitude on what is acceptable and appropriate office attire for women lawyers. We have shifted the emphasis from what women look like to their competence and value, and we need to do all that we can to safeguard these improved perceptions of professional women.
We always must be cognizant of how to present ourselves as professionals. Although dressing in a more feminine manner is a very positive step forward for women lawyers, dressing in a provocative and sexual manner is definitely a step backward. Be sure that you do not fall victim to that by sporting too much cleavage, too much thigh and too many negligee-type garments in the workplace.
If you do, being told that you "do not look like a lawyer" would be perfectly appropriate.
Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law. She is author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another. Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.
Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division. She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.
Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.