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Modern lawyer style: Must you conform to get a job?

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Times are changing, but whether you can showcase your personality with your dress, tattoos, piercings, and other ways to express yourself is still a judgment call.

By LYNAE TUCKER

The hiring process can be unforgiving for law students with a nontraditional appearance. Have a tattoo? What about a piercing? Dramatic hair and vibrant clothing are also ways students express themselves. It’s tough for students who don’t look just like their peers to know how to navigate the interviewing process. That’s true in part because there are differing opinions on the “acceptable” way to express individuality in the workplace. Renata Castro Alves, founder of Castro Legal Group in Pompano Beach, Fla., believes an uncommon look is a positive. She’s not a traditional blackand- grey suit kind of attorney. She prides herself on her bright clothing, crazy shoes, and her fiery red, curly hair. “Unique appearances are the quirks that make people, people,” said Castro Alves.

“That can be an asset rather than a disadvantage.” But not all lawyers and hiring professionals feel the same way. Even those who are accepting of individual expression in their day-to-day lives often feel there’s a need to temper that with some level of conformity to the generally conservative legal field. In Kansas City, Mo., Matthew Kentner, a partner at Kentner Wyatt LLC, shares his practice with a business partner who sports her tattoos in the workplace. Despite his partner’s non-traditional appearance, Kentner errs on the side of conservatism when it comes to what constitutes professional dress. “In our firm, it’s more important to be dressed professionally rather than to worry about visible tattoos or piercings,” stated Kentner. “But my partner still covers her tattoos in court. There’s a standard for the courtroom that’s more conservative.”

“Unique appearances are the quirks that make people, people,”

What does all this mean for your job search? Here, these lawyers and others in the hiring field offer suggestions for when, and how, to show your true colors on the job. IT’S ABOUT THE CLIENTS As a solo practitioner who specializes in immigration law, Castro Alves represents clients from many cultures and walks of life, and she strives to create a legal experience that’s more approachable through the way she presents herself. “My clients feel intimidated when I wear a suit,” said Castro Alves. “So I kept my crazy shoes and bright clothes. I think it makes me more relatable. And you should see my assistant’s hair. The culture at my office is nontraditional.” When Castro Alves hired her assistant, Larissa, she knew Larissa’s appearance was untraditional for the legal field. Castro Alves recounts that when she met Larissa, Larissa had a mountain of hair. “There was a time after I hired her that you’d walk into the reception area, and all you would see is hair on top of the computer,” Castro Alves mused. But Castro Alves hired Larissa because of her willingness to be herself. “I remember thinking that if she has the guts to own up to who she is with all that hair, this is the kind of employee I want to have,” said Castro Alves. “She was transparent and honest, and those are qualities I want in an employee.” Castro Alves was attending law school when she was told for the first time what was acceptable clothing for female lawyers. A professor said, “It’s extremely inappropriate for women to wear dresses; they should be wearing suits in black and grey.” That advice didn’t faze Castro Alves.

In law school, she decided that if she changed herself, she would be doing herself a disservice. “The traditional law world won’t accept you for your unconventional appearance,” she thought. “Even in law school, I immediately knew I was never going to dress the way I was told to.”DON’T DISTRACT How should you handle interviews if your appearance is nontraditional? Castro Alves advocates being yourself, within limits. “You need to think: What’s the other side going to think?” she recommended. “Then prepare for that audience. Maybe you go, and you’re pleasantly surprised that it’s an environment where your appearance is accepted. But you need to do research on the firm’s culture and dress code in a lawyerly fashion.”

To Castro Alves, there are also a few tried and true rules that should never be broken when it comes to being professional:

  • Practice good hygiene.
  • Avoid strong or offensive odors, including perfume or cologne.
  • Wear clothing that’s well maintained.

“We’re lawyers,” she said. “We’re not in a beauty pageant. But you don’t want to distract anyone from your craft, and your craft, ultimately, is to be an attorney.” If you’re willing to compromise on your appearance to get your dream job, but the workplace has a conservative atmosphere, just know the tradeoff you’re making. “As long as you do your homework and understand the environment you’re going into, you can conform,” said Castro Alves. “But you might have to make adjustments along the way. You have to conform and learn the etiquette. The challenge with that is you may just need a job, but that job becomes a career, and that career may leave you a burned out attorney. I caution against changing yourself for a job.”

Lawyer Style

Stick with standards

On the opposite end of the spectrum are lawyers like Kentner, who believes in dressing the part. That also means knowing your potential employer’s culture. Dress codes are commonplace within firms of all sizes and range from courtroom formal to Silicon Valley casual. A firm’s culture is often reflected in its dress code and is a good indicator of what’s acceptable dress.

A firm’s dress code functions as a consistent brand for the firm, guaranteeing clients an expectation they can rely on. “You still need to conform to the employer who’s writing your paycheck, and conform to what the employer believes to be acceptable,” said Kentner. In contrast to Castro Alves, Kentner has a more traditional view on addressing nontraditional appearances in the interviewing process. “Dress conservatively in an interview,” he advised. “Then address your nontraditional self-expression during the interview and ask what the culture is regarding things like body modifications.”

No matter the firm’s response, Kentner stated you then have to make a decision about whether your individuality is important enough to pass up on a job or if the job is more important than your self-expression. Or you may decide that once you’re employed, you’ll present yourself in a way that doesn’t conform with the firm’s dress code. However, Kentner recommended discussing that with a supervisor or the human resources department before breaking the firm’s policies.Professional clothing rules are becoming less formal even in the courtroom, according to Kentner. But there’s still a standard, especially for men. “Men are held to a higher standard when it comes to dress, while women have more options, including clothing I believe is too casual,” he noted. “But it depends on the situation, whether it’s in court or at the office. The best way to determine what the standard of dress is in a formal setting is to check the court rules. But most of the time it’ll be a suit.” Castro Alves and Kentner agree on the benefits of a lessformal dress code when interacting with everyday clients. “Sometimes, we find that clients actually prefer that you’re not dressed so formally because they’re more comfortable meeting you,” said Kentner. “You become much more relatable that way.” “USE COMMON SENSE” In between Castro Alves and Kentner is Grace Carr Lee, executive director at Hoge Fenton LLC in San Jose, Calif., who’s seen all manner of dress because she’s essential in the hiring process.

A firm’s culture is often reflected in its dress code and is a good indicator of what’s acceptable dress.

Location and size of firm plays a large role in the culture of a firm and can impact the level of individual expression that’ll be permissible. Some hiring managers, like Carr Lee, appreciate a balance of professionalism and individuality. How does Carr Lee describe her firm’s dress policy? “Use common sense.” The key to dressing professionally she explained, is to be expressive in one’s personal appearance but to make sure it’s not a distraction to co-workers or clients. “Remember: The way you present yourself is an indicator of your judgment—and you will be judged,” she stated. Professional dress has consistently had a male and female form, but it’s more common than ever for employees, especially women, to cross gender boundaries and present themselves in a way that’s truer to themselves. Today, it’s no more abnormal to see a female attorney in a suit and tie than it is to see a male attorney in a closely tailored ensemble. Law students and attorneys alike are finding ways to break the traditional dress code while still looking presentable. In hiring, Carr Lee cares about dressing professionally but doesn’t necessarily care about gender conformity. “What you see is what you get at an interview,” she said. “So it’s about being true to yourself but looking professional.”

Carr Lee recounts multiple co-workers who don’t conform to traditional gender norms in the way they dress. Interviews are the time and place to let employers know what you bring to the table and in what way. “We knew when we interviewed these people that they’d never come to work in a dress—it would have been awkward if they had,” she recalled. “When you come to an interview, you should be the best version of yourself, and that’s how you should be evaluated.” Whatever you do, make sure you take a firm’s culture into consideration when choosing among potential employers. “A student who has a less conservative appearance needs to think hard about whether a traditional corporate environment is right for them,” noted Carr Lee. “A firm that says ‘No tattoos; No piercings’ may also have a very conservative culture. What if you went to a [social] function and your tattoos show and that’s frowned upon? Is that where you want to work?” The bottom line is that if you’re interested in a specific firm or company, you’re tasked with the responsibility to determine whether you’ll thrive in the company’s culture—and that starts with its degree of acceptance of personal expression. Before you take a job, you need to decide what your priority is— the job or your personal expression? In her 22 years of legal experience as a defense attorney and a mediator, and in her current position as the executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission in Iowa,

Five tips for interviews

Karen Mackey has developed five recommendations for law students who want to put their best appearance forward in interviews:

1. DON’T WING IT. “First and foremost, do your research on who’s interviewing you,” said Mackey. “The real question isn’t, ‘Who are they?’ but rather, ‘What are their personal biases that I need to overcome?’” This is admittedly a hard thing to figure out. But Mackey advised that you do your research and then make an educated guess. Do Internet searches, talk to your connections for any information you can uncover, and if you must, make assumptions based on age, where they work, and the type of work and volunteer activities they’re involved in.

2. STAND OUT WITH YOUR PERSONALITY, NOT YOUR APPEARANCE. Cover your tattoos and remove your piercings, advised Mackey. “Interviews aren’t the time for anything to stand out except for what’s coming out of your mouth,” she stated. The only exception would be if you look worse without your piercings than if you leave them in. Your goal is to avoid shocking the interviewer. Also, avoid outlandish makeup or jewelry.

3. FIND A TRUSTED ADVISOR. “When in doubt, find an advisor who knows the industry,” noted Mackey. “That person can give you advice on what looks best on you. Avoid asking anyone who encouraged you to get that tattoo or piercing in the first place.”

4. DON’T TAKE ADVANTAGE, EVEN IF THERE’S NO POLICY. “You don’t want to be the reason your office adopts a new dress code,” said Mackey. “If you’re questioning whether something is appropriate for work, err on the side of caution.”

5. GIVE A LITTLE TO GET A LITTLE. Although personal expression is near and dear to many individuals, you may have to be willing to compromise on you appearance to land the job you want.

“You have to decide to go for what you want, and sometimes that means changing your appearance to fit in,” stated Mackey. “It’s the reality of the law field.” The overall takeaway from Mackey is that your presentation is less about you and more about your potential client. “Don’t put obstacles in your client’s path by being provocative,” said Mackey. “The presentation choices you make every day dictate the respect you receive. Choose wisely.”

LYNAE TUCKER is the student editor of Student Lawyer and a second-year student at University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion. Full disclosure: Tucker served this summer as an intern under Mackey.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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