In an editorial in The National Law Journal, Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode, author of The Beauty Bias, makes the case that there's a prejudice against those not blessed with good looks, and that it is a form of discrimination as insidious as racism or sexism:
Attractiveness is a highly imperfect proxy for the qualities that make for effective lawyering. The difficulty is not so much the bump for the beautiful as the penalties for those who fail to measure up. Adverse treatment on the basis of physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and compromises merit principles.
And women, she says, pay a particularly heavy toll: "They spend vastly more time and money on appearance, partly because they are judged more harshly than men for overweight and age-related characteristics. Unlike their male colleagues, female professionals do not achieve gravitas with their wrinkles."
No question that women are more self-conscious about their looks, and beautiful people have an edge in life. In fact, one recent Cornell University study found that criminal defendants who look unappealing get harsher sentences.
But in the legal profession? Isn't this one of the rare fields where high grades (and the implicit ability to withstand grueling, tedious work) trump everything from bad acne and personality ticks to poor table manners? I know--and you know--scores of successful lawyers who are not exactly beauties. But their tenacity and smarts eventually land them on top of the heap. In a perverse way, law comes close to being a true meritocracy.
Is this tough legal market changing the rules? Can firms now demand top grades and top looks? Is the legal profession getting vain? Or didn't we notice it before?
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail lead writer Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.