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Law Students Challenge Problematic Calls for “Professionalism”

Recently, a few of our favourite feminist law students took issue with an article entitled “ You Have the Right to Remain Stylish” posted in the University of Ottawa Common Law Student Newspaper. The light hearted piece aimed at law students doled out unsolicited fashion advice about things like what kind of suits to buy to dress for success, and the importance of wearing heels and jewelry.

The University of Ottawa OUTLAW Executive (the LGBTQA Student Association) and the University of Ottawa Law Union Steering Committee wrote a heartfelt and badass response to the article calling it out for perpetuating oppressive attitudes. It would have been great to read their response when we were law students, and as non-comforming practicioners we like knowing that there are soon-to- be laywers speaking out so articulately against these types of mainstream pressures.

Here’s an excerpt from the public response written by OUTLAW and Law Union, and endorsed by the University of Ottawa Association of Women and the Law:

“Elitist, ableist sexist and gender-essentialist values about presenting oneself in particular ways are not simply facts of law school life. Suggestions that the law is a conservative profession and that this kind of message is inevitable are antithetical to this school’s commitment to social justice. People should not be told how to dress unsolicitedly and not every person who identifies as a woman wears jewelery or a skirt. There is a clear directive behind these “tips”, which is the proposition that if law students do not conform to specific gender and class standards, they will not succeed. This kind of conversation perpetuates the idea that someone’s academic and professional qualifications matter less than their ability to dress the part. The fact is that some people cannot or will not dress the part.

The focus on appearance over competence is harmful to women, trans and gender non-conforming people, and students who are economically disadvantaged. Pointing out attempts and failures at passing when it comes to gender and/or class creates real barriers. Recommended clothing choices, such as knee length skirt suits with moderate heels, represent a Western standard of attire. This standard is centered around a white ideal that actively ignores the diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds in our student body. High end stores carry a limited range of sizes that most people will not fit into comfortably, and many cannot afford the prices. Many cannot come to law school precisely because they are not wealthy. Suggesting that it is necessary or ideal to buy expensive clothing excludes students who do not have the financial means, who may live on a fixed income, or who shop strategically.

Ableist assumptions are also prevalent in these types of conversations. When a person with a visible disability chooses to dress down they are flagged as sloppy and unable to dress well, while for those who pass as “able” or who are not disabled, the assumption is that they have chosen to dress down. People with physical disabilities are discriminated against because mobility aids like canes and orthotics are viewed as unstylish and meant to be hidden. Some individuals are told to suffer without their aids or to conform in order to look the part of a “proper” lawyer. This is a policing of all bodies in all ways. Fatphobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism are inseparable here.

Professionalism itself is a problematic idea, in part because we hesitate to interrogate it for fear of failing the standard. Suggestions have been made that the way law students (especially feminine presenting women) look could directly affect their job prospects and the references they get from professors. The notion that the way students present has any bearing on the willingness of a professor to write a strong reference letter is disrespectful to our professors and suggests a lack of academic integrity. These implications take this conversation out of the realm of mere opinion.

The notion that theses are “friendly” tips is often presented as a defense to this kind of policing of gender and class. In conversation about the appropriate response to these tips, a colleague said this:

“[I mean] 1) To refuse the pleasantries of a discourse that wields ‘well-meant advice’ and ‘being nice’ as one of the most common tools used to police gender in grossly conservative ways.

2) Keeping things in the realm of the objective and logical loses, for me, the real core of what is going on in a situation like this – means that those being policed and quietly urged to look normal are required to feel nothing in order to respond – to not be angry or hurt, to deny what happens to those experiencing inequality. Objectivity and angry feelings of injustice aren’t mutually exclusive and don’t undo one another. I feel quite capable of taking apart a bad syllogism using logic, but I also FEEL the policing of feminine propriety as a personal wrong that is done every day to me […] and the people I love and admire. “Acting badly” or “being angry and taking it personally” is an option that is denied by just the sort of pleasant femininity forwarded [in this dialogue]. And it’s an option I want. I don’t use it often, but I think that we – all of us thinking about these kinds of things – need to spend some time considering why we feel so uncomfortable when girls stop being nice” (quoted with permission).

The false notion that women are only as good as they look, and that there is only one way to look good, is antiquated and should be rejected. Surely there are more productive conversations we could be having about how to succeed or how to cultivate a professional reputation. Perhaps professionalism could be redefined as a commitment to not exposing your colleagues and employees to damaging narratives of necessary conformity.

It is misleading to frame the article in terms of individual opinion. We make no assumptions about the motivations of the author or the editorial staff of Inter Pares. In fact, we are sure that the article was meant to be light hearted. However, it is indicative of the messages that women and gender non-conforming law students get regularly from (big) law firms and school representatives on how to present themselves in interviews and at jobs. Defining this as a “singular opinion” hides the repeated and compounding nature of these conversations and the harmful impact that they have.

OUTLAW and the Law Union would like to call on their members and colleagues to shift the focus away from appearance, and toward ideas”.