Women in Law

A previous article on The Attic exploring the portrayals of women in law on TV provoked some interesting discussion in the office about fiction vs. reality. So, we decided to dig a little deeper, and conducted a survey of practicing lawyers on how they felt about their fictional counterparts, and the influence they have on women in the legal sector.

Professional women across different sectors face certain challenges of greater magnitude than their male counterparts – from gender bias and pregnancy discrimination, to the gender pay gap. A seemingly superficial but no less significant challenge is the pressure that many women face to ‘dress to impress’ in the workplace. Our survey found 9 out of 10 female lawyers agree that they often feel pressure to prove their competency by dressing a certain way, and 8 out of 10 believe that some of this pressure comes from stereotypes of female lawyers perpetuated by on-screen portrayals in popular culture. Think modelesque Charlotte Richards or immaculately dressed Jessica Pearson, all undeniably glamorous women with not a hair out of place, always perched on top of stiletto heels that “no working woman could survive a day in,” as quoted by one surveyee. “Living up to such standards would be a tall order,” claimed another, emphasising that hours of primping, polishing and a limitless fashion budget to maintain such an appearance are hardly compatible with the day to day realities of being a lawyer.

Smart, Sexy, or Both?

On the flipside, perhaps these portrayals are aspirational and liberating: the strong presence of these women in a traditionally male-dominated sector is reflected in their powerful fashion choices. Yet this still continues to feed the idea that a lawyer’s competency is directly linked to his or her physical appearance. While to an extent all lawyers face this pressure; many female lawyers claim that their appearances are scrutinised more heavily than those of their male colleagues. “Dressing professionally seems to be a combination of smart and sexy, the pencil skirt and heels look is almost a uniform”, says one lawyer, “clothes and styling imply your professional capability and commitment to work”. The pressure to be simultaneously “smart and sexy” is somewhat paradoxical; while a certain degree of ‘sexiness’ is apparently expected, studies show that sexualised women are seen as less intelligent and less competent. This contradiction is brought under the spotlight in Legally Blonde, with Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods defying all stereotypical expectations of her intellect – notably without comprising on or altering her appearance, or personality, in the process.

Ageism and the ‘Ally McBeal Effect’

When Ally McBeal debuted in the late 90s, the series was praised for its forward-thinking take on female sexuality; Ally’s “mini [skirts] take centre stage”, and in It’s My Party, she is even held in contempt by the judge when she refuses to wear a longer skirt to court. This might be considered a bold move to prove that a lawyer’s competency holds no connection to her appearance; Jane Pratt, editor-in-chief of Jane magazine, says “we can all look at Ally and see her as some kind of icon. Women find themselves emulating her, feeling ok wearing shorter skirts to the office because of her. She’s freeing women up.” However, around 35% of female lawyers are partners, and generally between the ages of 45 and 54. Do female partners really see Ally as “some kind of icon”? One lawyer in her 40s replied that “normal office dressing for women is biased towards how 20-somethings dress. Does a middle-aged lawyer have to try to look like a 25 year old? Are we allowed to go grey? Wear more comfortable shoes? Put on weight? I think if women did we would be seen as unprofessional.”

The Litigatrix

In his article, Farewell Ally McBeal, Enter the Litigatrix, David Lat seeks to revitalise the perception of female lawyers in Ally McBeal by profiling the ‘Litigatrix’, a “supremely confident” female lawyer whose job description is to “make men feel pain”. Think, Glen Close in Damages, who one lawyer describes as a “power-hungry, ball-breaking psychopath”. The term used in the title, a portmanteau of litigator and dominatrix, conjures the cartoonish and somewhat insulting image of a whip-cracking, cold, browbeating female.

The invention of a new term distinguishes successful female lawyers as a breed of their own, and suggests that accomplished women are a novelty in a man’s world. It suggests that women are “objects” rather than “active agents”, as art historian Linda Nochlin discusses in her essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’. While a “man’s gender is proof of his accomplishment”, a woman “has to go further to prove her worth” and push past this objectification. The term ‘Litigatrix’ again ultimately implies a connection between a woman’s sex appeal and her competency as a lawyer. Lat’s effort to empower female lawyers “downplays their intelligence, hard work and success,” and “does what it intends, to sexualise a woman.”

Empowerment Through Appearance

But is it really so wrong to want to look good at work? Maintaining one’s personal appearance can “instill confidence, both inwardly and outwardly”, says one lawyer respondent. The Good Wife and spin off The Good Fight has received praise for its empowering use of makeup and clothes. The three leading women, Alicia Florrick, Diane Lockhart and Kalinda Sharma, as well as Lucca Quinn are examples of how ‘power dressing’ builds and demonstrates confidence (see also Jessica Pearson in Suits). The sharp suits, knee high leather boots and lip liner accentuate their competency and confidence in their ability. Their bold fashion statements are reflections of their bold personalities, and enhance their presence in a male-dominated environment.

Moreover, while the women are certainly made-up and well-presented at all times, they are all in their forties and fifties, and perhaps constitute more realistic representations of senior female lawyers.

Acknowledging Reality On Screen

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson documents Marcia Clark’s experience during the OJ Simpson trial in 1994, during which her physical appearance was heavily scrutinised by her colleagues and the media. Based on true events, American Crime Story’s portrayal of Marcia is therefore more accurate than previous portrayals of female lawyers, and the real life challenges Clark faced are on display. The series highlights the contradicting expectations that female lawyers must simultaneously ‘blend in’ and ‘stand out’. “At legal events, most female lawyers who want to be taken seriously wear dark coloured skirts and jackets. Trousers are accepted, but they are definitely not the norm,” one lawyer pointed out. Perhaps not surprising, since women lawyers were only permitted to wear trousers at work  since the 1990s! A degree of femininity is required, and in the series we see Marcia visiting a hairdresser for a “softer, more feminine” look, much like Clark did in real life. “I’m not a model, I’m not an actress, I’m a lawyer”, says Clark. Sarah Paulson, who played Marcia, commented on the role at the time: “it is the dirty little secret of the workplace that how a woman looks matters.”

Beyond The Gloss

From the responses we received, it’s clear that there is some uneasiness about portrayals of women in law in popular culture. Yes, fictional entertainment is typically more glossy and glamorous than the real life it portrays, and there needs to be room for the aspirational and escapism. But while women in male dominated spheres still have to fight against sexist perceptions to be taken seriously in their careers, these portrayals play an all the more influential and important role in changing minds and inspiring the lawyers of tomorrow. While inequality persists, there is perhaps no such thing as harmless fantasy – here’s hoping we see some more down-to-earth, unglamorous lawyer reality hitting our screens in future to provide a balance.

Women in Law

What do most people picture when they think of what a women lawyer wears? If we go by popular culture, a super sharp black skirt suit with a luxuriously alluring white blouse usually comes to mind. How well this reflects reality is up for debate, but workwear for women in law has historically been something of a battle ground, and remains an unnecessary stress point for women in law today.

Workwear for Women Lawyers: Then and Now

As reported by this First 100 Year’s post, the fight for women’s suffrage, women’s fashion in turn began to emulate traditionally male styles, with sober suits included as a symbol of the new independent woman. However, the legal industry was still always one step behind, and until recently even the sight of a woman lawyer in trousers was considered risqué!

Today, as the wider office culture becomes more casual, with the suit more often reserved for high level meetings, how has the legal industry adapted its dress expectations, if at all?

Thankfully attitudes to women wearing trousers have mostly relaxed, but women in the corporate and professional setting still face additional societal judgement on their performance and leadership based on what they are wearing and how they present themselves. Only last month, a study found that people judged women who wore more makeup as having weaker leadership skills. At the same time, the sober suit that was once adopted by women to signify their liberation, has evolved into the uniform of the stifled, stuffy corporate identity.

The Pressure to Conform

Lawyers as a whole are spending an incredible amount of time and money on workwear. The high spend however does not necessarily mean that workwear for women in law is being treated as an enjoyable indulgence – in fact quite the opposite. There is the suggestion that many lawyers do not find it easy to dress themselves for work, spending an excessive amount of time – up to three months of the year – deciding what to wear, and are viewing sartorial choices for work as a stress point. There are two sides to the issue: law is typically seen as high paid, particularly in practice, and there is pressure to conform to high standards of dress for all genders and levels of employment. However, at the same time, there are wider culture changes with more allowances made for individuality in the workplace. Smart casual is that dreaded catch-all term that means different things to different people, so navigating expectations can become even more of a minefield even though the dress code is in fact ‘relaxing.’ Add to that the additional scrutiny that women face on how they present themselves, and workwear for women in law can become a real drain on mental energy, as well as the pocket.

Female Lawyer Workwear: A Fashion Expert’s View

How have fashion observers seen attitudes to workwear trends in law evolve? We talk to fashion expert Emilie Chanteloup, co-founder of digital magazine Imaginealady.com, who tells us what she is seeing in women’s approaches to workwear in the corporate and professional workplace.

“In people’s minds, the professional workwear dress code is typically a suit,” says Emilie, “and jackets are must-haves in any situation. But the question now is: is the suit really essential for a conventional client meeting?”

Then there is the question of colour. “Black, grey or navy are used by all women struggling with the ‘what to wear’ dilemma every morning,” Emilie observes. “Dark colours, base suits and white tops; are often how you can describe a workwear outfit in a law firm. Sometimes, they may attempt to go a bit out there by wearing a polka dot or cream shirt and get comments on how they look ‘different’. However positive or negative the comment can be, it’s still a comment and it can easily bring down a woman’s confidence. That may sound extreme, but the reality is in our Imaginealady street fashion stories, most of the female workers from law firms I meet mention the fact that the weekend is the time where they take back their freedom and allow colour into their outfits.”

What of the money being spent on work clothes? “Each week, 5 days out of 7, those women are having wardrobe frustrations because of the social pressure in their work environments. When Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines talk about the last workwear trends and how to follow it, lawyers and women working at law firms are not even allowed to wear a bright yellow silk shirt with their black suit, creating a big gap between magazines and real life. So, how can you spend such a crazy amount of money without being a fashion follower? The answer is simple: the money goes on expensive pieces. Suits can cost nearly £600 with alterations or far more if they’re tailored. This is then justified as it gives people more confidence to wear an expensive brand suit. If nobody starts the workwear revolution, in 20 years from now, the workwear will still be described as the boring uniform to look like all your colleagues, while still spending a fortune. Wearing something is all about showing a part of who you are and who you want to be. So why hide your identity at work?”

Emilie touches on a very good point. In an industry where women still feel the need to work that little bit harder to be taken as seriously as their male peers, something as slight as the colour of their shirt is often seen as a risk to their professional identity. Female lawyers may find themselves dressing to make themselves more invisible to avoid unjust scrutiny of their presence and appropriateness in the workplace. This reality differs greatly from the broadly held view in the fashion world that traditional professional dress codes are on the way out.

Changing The Approach to Workwear

Dressing for work should be a more enjoyable part of our working routine, not another stress point. When you put on an outfit, it should be an easy decision that enhances your mood and prepares you for work; the clothes you wear should represent you as an individual, the pride you take in your work and what you hope to accomplish during that day.

Marianna Ferro, CEO of Flair Atelier online fashion tailoring portal, agrees. “It is difficult to generalise, women tend to be less aligned than they used to be when it comes to workwear. It’s safe to say that women working in creative sectors tend to go for bolder option, while others working in more formal office as banks or law firms tend to purchase updated versions of the classic little black dress. What is definitely happening is that women more and more are leaving behind the grey and dark blue formal suits at work and they are less intimidated about showing their feminine side. The trends we see are all about keeping it professional, without losing your identity. Whether it’s a classic cut in an unexpected colour, or a statement piece to complete a formal look, workwear is now a mix of confidence and comfort: crease-free fabrics, well-considered cuts, overall quality that make you feel great throughout the day so you can keep your focus on achieving, and not just appearing.”

The Bottom Line

Our choice of what to wear has never been broader, but many women lawyers are still expected to fit into a very narrow box of expectations. There is nothing wrong with one or two nice suits, but it can no longer be held up as the defining feature of a lawyer’s wardrobe. As women are becoming more ever-present and visible in the higher echelons of the legal profession, we can hope that more individuality and indeed, colour, will follow, as women lawyers are no longer judged as a category but on their individual identities and merits. There are enough pressures on our shoulders. The less time we are forced to spend worrying about what to wear, the better for all.