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  • Writer's pictureKath Hall

Does it matter what you wear to law school?

I think that there’s still enough of a thought that a lawyer looks a particular way …

(You’ve) got to look like a lawyer, act like a lawyer, sound like a lawyer.

You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer - Tsedale M Melaku

While Australian law schools are much more diverse now than they were 50 years ago, some things have changed little since the days when lecture halls were filled with white, middle-class English-speaking men. Many law schools are still a bastion of conservatism, sexism, racism and classism when it comes to the advice given to law students on what to wear to job interviews, mooting competitions, clerkship evenings and even lectures.

This issue is real for anyone who doesn’t fit the "historical" standard of the white middle-class male. Try wearing a bright coloured shirt to a mooting competition, gender fluid clothing to a clerkship evening, a head scarf or indigenous themed top to a job interview or an ill-fitting suit to a networking event. The discomfort you will feel is because one of the “hidden” rules of success in the legal profession is that you have to “look the part”, and that means dressing as close as possible to the Euro-centric male version of professionalism and affluence.

Take the Guidelines for Dress Standards in Court issued by the Law Society of South Australia in April 2020. Designed to provide clarification for young practitioners, they stated that

· women’s dresses and skirts need to be knee length,

· sleeveless, strapless, low cut or see-through clothing is inappropriate, and

· brightly coloured or highly patterned clothing should only be worn as a highlight in an otherwise conservative outfit.

They state that ‘attire that is unacceptable to a judicial officer may result in the matter being adjourned’ or a solicitor being required to ‘apologise to the Court’ or ‘ask the Court to excuse his or her attire’.

In an Open Letter in response, the Women Lawyers of SA Inc stated that:

"The unconscious bias that underpins this standard is very evident. It assumes that the appropriate work attire is that of a male suit, and that the only appropriate female attire is a very close version of this ... (M)erely mimicking male dress should no longer be the comparative standard for appropriate attire."*

If the legal profession really wants to embrace diversity (gender, culture, indigenous, sexuality) it has to stop telling law students and lawyers how to dress. As long as these negative and discriminatory messages continue, it fails to embrace the diversity and character of young people coming into the profession.

Messages such as those contained in the Guidelines can also create tension, anxiety, and stress for those who do not “fit” the dominant stereotype – whether because of gender, race, indigeneity, or socio-economic background. They increase the risk of individuals being treated as different based on their appearance, and confer privilege and acceptance on those who do conform.

As Marie Iskander writes in a recent article in Lawyers Weekly:

"(F)or too long, we have been taught, whether consciously or subconsciously, that to fit into the legal profession you need to speak and act white and male. After all, the legal profession was built for and by white men …

I can recount several times as a law student and a lawyer when I have been told by peers and even those in senior positions to tone down my feminine appearance or soften my “passion” when appearing in cases, so as not to stand out or appear too emotional — and heaven forbid, so as not to appear too ethnic or too female."

In Australian law schools (unlike those in the United States), advice on dress codes is usually limited to students attending interviews, career evenings, networking events and competitions. However, implicit messages on clothing and appearance influence students throughout the law school experience.

As Ambra Soci, Pierce Soulsby and Chloe Roseburg from the Monash LSS Queer Subcommittee write:

"Expressing your sexuality or gender identity while also working within the confines of a cisnormative and heteronormative dress code is a constant anxiety for some queer and gender diverse people. The general expectations of the legal dress code reinforce the gender-binary. It has been designed by and for cishet (Cisgenger heterosexual) people and favours traditionally masculine colours, such as black, blue and charcoal; universally ‘professional’ colours.

In examining the legal space’s preference for traditional masculinity and strict “male or female” attire, it is clear the little-to-no opportunity for queer and gender-diverse employees to don more gender-inclusive, tradition breaking and diverse colour, covertly sends messages of exclusion to queer students."

In a recent article in the ANU Observer, a law student accused the university and law school of "covert institutional practices … which reward rich, white, English-speaking and gender conforming students over all others". The student had been penalised for wearing a nose-ring in a mock court presentation. Other law students spoke about being marked down for 'speaking too high' and for moving their hands incorrectly while speaking.

Rejecting individual expression in appearance, dress and behaviour maintains the status quo and reinforces assumptions about who is “naturally suited” to being a member of the legal profession and who is not. It imposes on individuals with diverse identities and backgrounds the requirement to continually decide if, when, and how to express their true selves. Negotiating the boundaries between visibility and invisibility at law school and within legal workplaces is an additional emotional and psychological process that is not imposed on those who form part of the mainstream.

For law students and lawyers to feel safe to express their identities at law school and in the work context, self-expression through dress should be embraced not discouraged. We must trust students and young lawyers to make considered decisions on what to wear in professional contexts that respect both their role and their identities.

This can have a powerful effect on self-acceptance and confidence. As cognitive psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky note in the context of enclothed cognition, ‘when a person ascribes a symbolic (meaning) to an article of clothing while wearing that article of clothing, then the characteristic, strength, and/or ability symbolized by the clothing itself actually seems to have measurable effects on psychological states and performance.’

It is also important that members of the legal profession, particularly at senior levels and in the more traditional contexts of large law firms, the courts, commercial organisations and the bar, express and embrace diversity, and make inclusion part of the everyday workings of their workplaces.

As Juliana Warner, President of the NSW Law Society noted in 2019:

"There has to be a complete mind-shift about moving towards an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work, and where people can speak and express views and be listened to … We need to be tending to all the diverse people in our society and ensure they’re included and that they can come into the legal profession and succeed."

* The Guidelines were subsequently amended in July 2020.


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