I do not remember much from my law school orientation. I remember there was a continental breakfast and some small group sessions, and I remember feeling really, really old at 30, even though in the outside world the age gap between my youngest colleagues (22ish) and me was not that big.
“Oh, you’re new to Milwaukee?” I asked one of my group-mates. “Where are you living?”
“I have an apartment off-campus with three kids.”
“Oh nice! My partner has a three-year-old. How old are your kids?”
“No, I meant me and two other kids. Law students.”
Beyond that, I remember we got the Character & Fitness talk, the one telling us to get help if we needed help (but disclose the help on the application, please) and otherwise focusing on our missteps and how that could cost us bar admission. The professor giving the talk, a Jesuit priest who taught ethics and evidence, admonished us to sanitize our social media: “Do not post pictures of you doing keg stands, wearing naught but a thong.” It was not professional, he said.
I thought it was funny, and at 30 I was glad that (a) social media did not exist when I was young enough to do keg stands regardless of attire and (b) I have never been young enough to do keg stands.
But through law school and early in practice, the “professionalism” drum was beaten. Live your life in a way that your grandma would appreciate, and leave a paper trail that would not embarrass you if it were affixed with an exhibit sticker.
So much talk about appearance and demeanor as being the pillars of “professionalism.”
The day I shifted from clerk to lawyer in my first job, I was told that now that I was a lawyer I should dress like one. To this day I have no idea what the problem was. I was wearing business formal five days a week as a clerk.
How we dress is apparently a big part of “professionalism,” Coats and ties for men. Suits or dresses for women. In some places, panty hose (and although it may not be written down anymore, some firms and judges still frown on women wearing pants). Women must wear makeup, but not too much, and have a manicure, but not too much. Heels, but not too high. Anything else is unprofessional.
If you are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming and want to dress consistently with your identity? If you are Black and want to wear a natural hairstyle? If you are Muslim and wear a hijab? Well, we don’t mean to discriminate, but you’re taking a risk. Will a jury find you “professional?”
When I searched the free photo service on SquareSpace for “professional,” I got a bunch of pictures of white-appearing men in suits, because of course I did.
Also, a “professional” attends networking events. You know how to network, right? Your handshake is neither dead fish nor a knuckle breaker? (Not that it has mattered for the last 10 months, but it still matters.) Surely your parents taught you. Oh, you’re a first generation law student? Well, we’ll have some career center trainings that might help you learn how to be more “professional.”
A “professional” avoids getting personal or controversial on social media (even on personal pages, because you never know who’s looking), and they should avoid “befriending” anyone unsavory. A “professional” can show some tempered disappointment at a bad outcome, or some measured satisfaction with a job well done. No big emotions. Positive attitude.
Meanwhile, some lawyers are signing their names to frivolous and dangerous litigation to disrupt the duly elected government. They are doing objectively bad work. They are taking advantage of their position. They are stealing from clients. All of this is going on and yet law students and young lawyers are being told to police their social media?
The “professionalism” discussion should be about being an effective, competent, ethical lawyer. That’s usually how it’s advertised and defined—“professionalism” is devotion to competency, honesty, integrity, good character. This is how it should be.
But so much of this conversation focuses not on actually being a professional, but playing the part of a “professional”—it’s about how we look and dress, and how polite we are, often scaled to a white, male stereotypical norm set decades ago. It reinforces white supremacy and patriarchy and ableism.
But lawyers are human.
We have opinions, sometimes controversial ones.
We have interests outside of the law.
We cry at the office.
We want to have conversations about things other than the weather or sports.
Lawyers swear. We kibbitz. We drink. We make poop jokes.
Right now, we can’t pursue most of these interests in person, and so many of us have turned to social media. I’ve corresponded on Twitter with more than a few young lawyers and law students, almost exclusively women, who post anonymously because they feel they have to censor themselves otherwise, even though they don’t want to talk about anything illegal or even all that controversial; they just want to talk about their lives and feelings without getting discredited or tagged as “at risk of denial for admission.”
We speak in vernacular, or with an accent.
We use wheelchairs or hearing aids or twelve-step programs.
We wear clothing appropriate to our culture and gender identity, and may want to express ourselves through jewelry or hairstyle.
We may be clumsy in high heels or itchy in makeup. We may be unable to wear high heels or be allergic to makeup. Or, we may feel powerful in high heels or naked without makeup.
These things are not “unprofessional.” They are human.
So many aspects of our profession reinforce white, wealthy, patriarchal traditions, and people outside those traditions (which is most of us, though law practice still needs to catch up) are expected to conform. A relatively recent article in the Florida Law Review makes the point (in scholarly rather than snarky terms that I am using here) that White Institutional America needs to get over itself, acknowledge its biases and realize that professionalism should be determined by work and not appearance. I agree. The article is a good one.
We need to stop focusing on “professionalism” and focus on professionalism.
I know some readers will criticize the law review article (and this blog entry) as “too PC” or “virtue signaling” or whatever.
But we need to do better. If we say we value diversity and inclusion, we don’t get there by telling our best and brightest they have to look, talk, think, and feel like a rich white man from 1972.
Our profession—if it is going to be professional—needs to have a reckoning with itself.