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Pretty Enough for This Job Market?

Vivia Chen

May 20, 2010

To the list of insecurities that already plague job applicants (not going to a first-tier law school, failure to make the Law Review, or the inability to get excited by golf), you can now add physical beauty--or the lack thereof. Contrary to what your mother might have told you, looks count.

Ally-McBeal-tv-11-1  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.

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It's one thing to have beauty, but it would be a fallacy to conclude that one glides upwards on the proverbial ladder on this alone. To be truly successful, a woman with beauty must also be able to win over (rather than trump and destroy) both women and men sharing their company in the workplace. While looks may arguably help one to "get in the door" over someone less attractive, one could persuasively make the case that attention to detail in aesthetics, and/or overall put-togetherness with respect to appearance are easily likened to qualities that are reflective of the work product delivered by a person owning these characteristics. As a general rule, such qualities will pierce more than one facet of a persons lifestyle. It is obviously likely, and therefore unexcusable to feign ignorance to the fact that most assume, in regards to the woman with her glasses and hair askew, that she is not as organized, attentive, or skilled in time management as the woman who maintains a perfect bun, ironed blouse, and high heels while working in a similarly demanding environment. Nor does this convlusively mean that either the former or the latter has a better or worse work product or is more or less socially apt.

Contrary to popular belief, beauty in the workplace can and often does act as an encumbrance to genuine recognition. I pride myself on maintaining an attractive appeal with respect to my appearance both physically and on paper. It is those who display a well-rounded lifestyle and an inviting charisma to match that are inevitably destined for true, earned success. Where a fantastic initial impression is deduced by a potential employer from ones CV, and is then materialized in the form of a healthy, friendly, and beautiful woman, one would be hard pressed in finding a legitimate reason not to hire.


Why do you have to be a "professional women" to have to not deal with catty women and looking beautiful? Those working for a professional women in a professional environment (or anywhere) should not have to be subjected to such a thing? Is that not part of discrimination in the work environment? Of course, at the end of the day, we all know it happens.

Attractive people always have an advantage over unattractive people in virtually every professional setting. It is not discrimination, it is just reality.

I am remembering reading once in a study which showed that while women are more attractive have an easier time getting hired, getting promoted because they have a much harder time.

Everyone knows that beautiful women get all the breaks. From junior high to retirement.

Hi! Hi! This is a beautiful site. I love its content and its design. I think either lawyer or doctor every one needs physical attraction.Thanks for sharing .

Hi !! every body ! I'm working as a Professional makeup expert , this article emphasizes the importance of physical beauty & advantages of it , in this highly competitive world.ThanQ . keep it up.

Hi, Every day i observe so many working women with out proper attention about their physical appearance .I can simply say that attraction is a basic need in a modern world. thanks!!

Let's put it this way: In the last 10 years, I have worked at one major NY law firm, 2 Fortune 500 companies and one small law department. At all places the ALL of the women have been very attractive (at worst) to stunning. If you are tall and pretty, but not unusual enough to be a model, clearly you have a career alternative as a lawyer. I have only worked with 2 women over the age of 50 in any of these places (and both of them were very attractive). Only one female lawyer I have worked with was significantly overweight (but her face was extremely attractive). In contrast, most of the men have been paunchy, at least half have been short. Only at an entertainment firm was there an unusual high number of really good looking men (about 10 of them) who were also in fairly good shape. There were many many successful men at these place over the age of 50. You can decide for yourself what my observations prove. Guess I am lucky enough to make good-looking-enough grade to even get one of these jobs.

It's difficult enough to survive in a competitive market without worrying about fashion trends, beauty tips and catty women. Professional woman should not be sucked into such mundane politics. Who has time for it? By worrying about those things, you give them power over you, allow them to distract you from the primary focus of business, and drive a wedge into the potentially smooth mechanics of office workings. Such mediocrity and smokescreens have no place in a working environment. Personally, I believe if someone - male or female - in the office tried to make this an issue, I'd call them on it immediately and put a stop to it. I've worked up from receptionist, legal secretary, office manager and paralegal and I've never allowed this kind of distraction to slow me down. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Women who gauge success by shopping, dating, salons, and fashions should be selling cosmetics, not working in a legal office. It reflects a lack of control at the helm for this type of thing to become problematic.

i remember once reading a study that showed that while more attractive women have an easier time getting hired, they have a much harder time getting promoted.

I agree with ShCs, women are vicious!!!! I can write from experience: I have worked in all-women firms and firms with a mix of men and women's. As in all walks of life, we need a balance definitely.

Working in Jacksonville, FL - the worst critics are the other females in the office. They only care about the salon I use, where I shop, who I'm dating, what I drive and where I live. If an attractive person walks through our door the women are vicious. It's truly shallow and ridiculous.

No, lawyers aren't generally great beauties, but of course women lawyers are judged more harshly... just like female political candidates are. Remember all the nasty comments about Hillary and her outfits?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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