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”.


  1. Great article. Thank you to the students who wrote the public response.

  2. Jonathan Westphal

    Oh for heaven’s sake! Law is a service profession. Like it or not, members of the public who spend substantial sums of money hiring a professional such as a lawyer generally expect that person to look the part. If I were up to me I’d be wearing sweatpants, Birkenstocks and an old undershirt to work, but instead I wear a suit. That’s life, get over it. Having to wear proper business attire hardly constitutes oppression.

  3. I am in the process of moving firms and one small part of the reason for doing so is that the new place I’m going has a much looser dress code. I don’t like having to dress up everyday. And as someone from a lower socioeconomic background I was hit harder than many of my law school colleagues by the demand that I buy new suits so I hear a lot of what this article is saying with regards to classism. That requirement forced me to burn through what little credit I had left after law school.

    But I think there is some idealism in this article that is out of touch with reality. The requirement by most law firms of “professionalism” from their lawyers–whether ‘professionalism’ is culturally constructed or not–is not just going to go away. In that context we each have to decide if we want to ‘fight the system’, refuse to conform to this particular social norm and accept the inevitable consequences of doing so with the goal of one day changing the standard OR play the game and conform. I don’t think you can begrudge people for choosing the former. Most peoples politics become pretty malleable when their career is in question.

    It is one thing to criticize that culture of ‘professionalism’ being demanded by law firms because–and I agree–it is antiquated and silly. It is another to criticize the author because they acknowledge that culture exists and helps those students without a political axe to grind get jobs. The requirement of a certain dress code at law firms is a reality. We can’t pretend that it isnt there and it does students a disservice to pretend that it is not.

  4. *choosing the latter

  5. I must say, I like that excerpt. Bravo and worth considering.

    In support of the ideas expressed in the article, I note this. All lawyers when appearing at trial wear black robes. Style is completely irrelevant. It is the quality of one’s advocacy that carries the day, not the cut of one’s skirt, blouse or suit.

    Worth thinking about.

    That said, we are dealing with human beings here and god knows that more than one snicker has been uttered at the dress of this or that lawyer in courthouses and judge chambers. This is the real world after all and we can’t get over our status seeking, social categorizing natures no matter how we try. To think that we actually achieve otherwise, no matter how ideal, is admirable, but unreaonsable given human fallibility.

  6. Johnathan, you make a some good points in respect of what the market place expects. However, I have no doubt that some segment of the market would be happy to pay for expertise rather than their lawyer’s Armani suits. These types of clients probably aren’t banks, but their money ought to be able to buy legal services just the same. By ratcheting down the cost of the professional “look”, more clients could probably afford legal services.

    After all, at trial in Canada, where your professionalism is on the line and most significantly on display, what do you wear?

    I wouldn’t suggest that lawyers wear their robes all the time, but that is the profession’s actual uniform (to the extent we have one), not $1,000 suits.

    I used to belong to the $1,000 suit crowd when I was a junior. As I got older and after working with numerous fine senior counsel who couldn’t be bothered with the finest cut of clothes, I realized that what’s between your ears is what client’s actually pay for, not your wardrobe. Looking professional as measured by the “typical business attire” is mere puffery and is required for some clients. Actual professional service is what all clients quite reasonably expect and deserve of their lawyers.

  7. I think the pressure to “look professional” goes a bit deeper than good public service. Every week I receive a number of glossy flyers featuring photos of handsome people wearing expensive professional clothes. They might make good ads for business suits, except what they are actually selling is law books.

  8. Professional appearance also adversely affects other equity-seeking groups, especially visible minorities. These are known issues in the larger employment world, and also exist in legal employment.

    This article in The Florida Bar Journal highlights some of the controversies over “black hairstyles,” which typically involve plaiting techniques that avoid using chemicals which could damage the natural state of the hair and underlying scalp.

    Some of the comments indicating that clients expect lawyers “to look the part” should not translate into discriminatory hiring practices by law firms or exclusionary behaviour while within a law firm. This should be a given, but we know for a fact that it simply is not.

    A professional look can and should have significant variations among a spectrum to appropriately accommodate for the needs of a diverse legal workforce. Until that is accepted there will continue to be challenges with recruitment and retention of diverse lawyers, and we’ll continue to point out that law firms simply aren’t ready for the 21st century.

  9. Jonathan is right. Law is a service-based profession. Our practices should always be about best serving the clients. Good lawyering is all about developing relationships of trust with clients and having them feel like someone is protecting their interests. A good lawyer should be able develop rapport with a client and convey confidence to them.

    When we wear a suit, or any outfit for that matter, it is always towards the purpose of developing trust with the client. And unless you are a lawyer lucky enough to make your money from institutional or niche clientelle, you are likely going to have to accommodate the more widely accepted norms, whatever they may be.

    Ultimately, I think the “challenge” being put forward by this article is one of social activism generally, aimed to change societal norms to better accommodate non-traditional values–and there is certainly nothing wrong with that–but that is far afield from what lawyering is all about, which again, is about providing services.

    Worrying about whether us poor lawyers are being held back from true self-actualization because of repressive social norms is hard to relate to when we already have such a prominent and powerful position in society.

  10. Sincere thanks to those who have contributed to this discussion. A substantial issue that straddles the line between practice and principle. In my view, tt raises a host of professional issues that are rightly the the subject of debate and consideration.

    I have dealt with “professional appearance and demeanour” issues in practice and have no doubt the initial article was crafted to be a helpful and lighthearted overview of a significant, if underappreciated, perhaps unexamined aspect of legal culture.

    However the critical issues raised about this subject reflect my own unease with what are often taken to be the “norms” of practice in Canada today.

    A debate worth having.

  11. Jonathan Westphal

    At the risk of being flippant, most everyone has to wear work clothes of some sort that are not the clothes they would wear on a day to day basis. It is a pain in the neck but it is reality. I am sympathetic to the argument on cost – I hate spending money on suits (and am one of those cheap, cheap people who shops post Chrismas sales once annually to refresh my work wardrobe – no $1,000 Armani suits here!), but this is something that one should be able to budget for, putting money away monthly. One thing I hate with a passion is ‘casual day’, as it means having to buy a second “business casual” wardrobe, chinos and button down shirts not being something I would normally wear.

    I can certainly agree that “A professional look can and should have significant variations among a spectrum to appropriately accommodate for the needs of a diverse legal workforce” – really, as long as one is well groomed and reasonably presentable I think that should be satisfactory to meet client expectations.

    All that being said, I have to reluctantly admit I feel more ‘professional’ when I am wearing business attire – perhaps that simply reflects the degree to which I have internal cultural norms. Whether those norms ought to be changed is certainly an interesting question, but not one I’d be tempted to explore if I were a young lawyer trying to start a career in a crowded, highly competitive job market while paying off student debt.

  12. Jonathan Westphal

    *internalized* cultural norms. Stupid fingers!

  13. Is there any correlation between the success of a company or industry and its dress code policy? At a passing glance it appears to me that the more successful companies or industries tend to stay away from dress codes, for example, Google is famously known to have the cultural motto of “you don’t have to wear a suit to be taken seriously”, while companies or industries that appear to be faltering are the ones with dress codes or even stringent dress codes. Maybe its their attempt to boost employee morale while the ship flounders. Nevertheless, is there a correlation between dress code policy and an industry’s or company’s success? Or is this like comparing apples and oranges, i.e., one can argue that Google is not a service industry meaning they are not dealing with the public on a day to day basis.

  14. What is ‘acceptable’ dress depends on the expectations and culture of the particular business. Information technology companies are notoriously open to any style at all, in part because their people don’t deal with the public directly, but in part because of the kind of people they want to hire, and in part these days (one suspects) to maintain their reputation as laid-back and cool.

    Different kinds of law practices have different expectations. Big Law with big business clients will tend to want business attire; smaller firms with different clientele may have different expectations.

    It is legitimate for an article addressed to law students to point out that they should be aware of such expectations and to consider meeting them if they want to be employed by the firms that have those expectations. Students may have become used to ‘anything goes’ dress codes during their time as students – since their mothers stopped supervising what they wore – so a reality check may be useful.

    It is also legitimate to point out, as this article does, that traditional business attire may not work well for people with some kinds of disabilities or orientations or even cultural backgrounds, not to mention that it can be expensive to meet that standard. To some extent Big Law may have to find some accommodations, and more flexible and less traditional employers should find room for a variety of dress, as they find room for a variety of people who can be competent lawyers.

  15. Of course accomodation is necessary, but some of the criticism of the original article on how to dress (which I haven’t read) sounds patronizing (and I use that term deliberately). Thinking of the disabled people I know or have met, virtually 100% dress professionally. There is a difference between genuinely requiring or being helped by accomodation including clothes issues, vs. the arrogance of others presuming to tell someone that they need accomodation wrt how they dress when they don’t want or need it.

    Cost may be a factor for some, though based on personal experience I still think one can shop smart. That said, I tend to agree with the point of view that dressing professionally (e.g. for men/those who so identify, wearing a suit) is often a mark of respect for your clients/potential clients, that they are important enough to “dress up” for. To decide that because the clients you’re dealing with aren’t wearing suits, you can dress down, itself strikes me as an objectionably classist/elitist attitude.

    I generally agree with those pointing out you have to live in the real world. I’ve dealt with women lawyers who dressed professionally without wearing heels or jewelry, but they still dressed professionally. Whatever gender you identify as, you can show respect for your clients and potential clients (or if in court for a non-gowned matter, the court and everyone there) by showing that they are important enough to make an effort for.

    As an aside, my recollection is that barrister’s gowns and the accoutrements are properly worn ONLY in the precincts of the courts, or for certain special events (e.g. Red Mass). That is, it would arguably be “unprofessional” to wear them under other circumstances…