The dominant image of a lawyer persists: a neatly dressed man wearing a conservative dark suit, white shirt, and muted accessories. Many attorneys can conform to this expectation, but there are a growing number of “outsider” lawyers for whom compliance with appearance norms can challenge their fundamental identities. People of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, religiously observant persons, and those who inhabit intersectional identities are among those who disproportionately remain excluded from the dominant culture and centers of power in the legal profession.
Expectations of appearance conformity create profound concerns that go well beyond style preferences, raising questions of autonomy and core identity. Non-compliance with these expectations can also have profound employment consequences. Studies have demonstrated that individuals make quick judgments imbued with unconscious bias. These fast and faulty implicit biases manifest in individual microaggressions and the creation of microaggressive environments. When an outsider law student or new attorney goes on a job interview or starts a new position, the employer cannot help but use this skewed lens.
To facilitate acceptance, some outsiders may choose to “cover,” or find a way to minimize their perceived differences from the majority culture. Black women may feel pressure to straighten their hair. Lesbians may feel obligated to avoid wearing pantsuits and flat shoes. Religious men and women may consider removing their head coverings. But these acts of covering have their own cost: They potentially harm the new lawyer’s sense of identity, her self-confidence, her close relationships with others, and her job performance.
This Article argues that legal employers and law schools have an obligation to create culturally proficient environments where insider lawyers learn to disrupt their own implicit biases and microaggressions so outsiders can bring their full identities to work and school. Self-determination theory, which seeks to enhance a person’s autonomy, competence, and relatedness to others, should be a central part of these efforts.
The recommendations made in this Article provide a tangible way to uproot the implicit bias and microaggressions that still pervade our legal institutions. Doing so will ensure attorneys and law students are assessed based on their capacities and the substance of their work instead of their appearance. Our profession deserves nothing less.