Rule for everyone everywhere: Wear what you want.

People have been chiming in lately about how women lawyers should dress, and how to talk about how women lawyers dress, which has been fascinating and irritating.

In case you missed it, Loyola Law School drew criticism for advising female law students to skip cleavage and stilettos at their externships (memo excerpts here).  Slate made fun of Loyola’s condescending memo. Then, District of Nebraska Senior Judge Kopf responded with a cheeky post titled, “On being a dirty old man and how young women lawyers dress.”  I love reading Judge Kopf’s posts, especially when I disagree with him. I like that he swears, he shares personal stories, he reflects and reconsiders things (his exchange with Shon Hopwood remains my favorite example) and he sometimes apologizes. He offered three rules “young women lawyers should follow when considering how to dress for court,” including calling men “pigs and prudes” and advising women against dressing so slutty that the clerks start chattering about it. He also said he really admired the view when it included cleavage and short skirts. For the many people who thought Ewwww! Erin Grace responded with a critique and Judge Kopf apologized (sort of) for objectifying women. Meanwhile, Scott Greenfield first expressed shock at Kopf but ultimately came to his defense. Many others chimed in, often displaying a very irritating eagerness to work the word “slut” into the conversation. 

Rule for interviews: wear what you want (but be informed because there is a uniform)

Tamara Tabo wrote the best post on this topic on Above the Law, stating directly and correctly “there is a uniform of professional attire.”

As a law student entering the profession, it would be inexcusably lazy to fail to learn the basic components of the expected uniform. What I recall of being a law student new to the experience of dressing for interviews was that the suited world seemed foreign and overwhelming. I was from a rural hippie town; I’d never seen anyone dress in a suit for work. I gratefully relied on employees at Talbots and Coach to help me select a very conservative first uniform. My law school experience is now twenty years stale and I would expect this information would be readily available in the internet age, but a friend currently attending a Southern California law school recently described to me– with some shock and dismay– that students were going to job interviews with swimsuit ties showing at the backs of their necks. Laziness? Statement? Uninformed? How’s an employer to know?

Again, Tabo is right: be informed about the uniform and then decide whether to accept, modify or reject it. Rejecting it, especially at an interview or internship specifically for the purpose of making an impression, has a consequence. If a person dresses in a way that seems extremely attention seeking, it comes across as disingenuous or foolish to then become indignant about drawing attention. Are you trying to make a point or trying to get a job? If your first priority is individual expression, some work environments may not share the value you place on personal creativity. If your outfit screams out “fuck you and your senseless rules,” people will hear it. If you go to an interview with swim top ties peeking out from your blazer, your prospective boss may wonder if your first priority is to maximize your beach time.

I still wear a conservative suit to any interview, professional appearance or meeting with any other agency or department. As Tabo says, it’s the uniform. As she writes, “Uniforms cover up distracting superficial individual differences, so that character, intellect, and skill get the attention. ‘Boring’ is a feature, not a bug.” That said, I believe there is a fair bit of leeway for anyone who projects professionalism; one of the best interns I’ve ever had wore the same inexpensive slacks and sweater every work day and no one cared a bit because her work was strong and she was professional.

Rule for the legal workplace: wear what you want.

Once on the job, there may be different expectations and they may be situational. In my years as a  PD, I’ve worn everything from expensive suits to the flowy maternity equivalent of pajamas made for the office. But, mostly I wear the tried and true uniform: a plain suit. I hate suits. I’d never be caught in one outside work. From my first summer job at the Public Defender Service in DC in 1991, I loved that the attorneys came to work in jeans and tie dye shirts, but put on their game faces and suits to charge into court. Putting on the uniform is part of the whole superhero act. It’s exciting, important, fun stuff we get to do and we suit up for it. 

Rule for jury trials: wear what you want (but never lie or be fake to jurors).

Whatever liberties I may take on days filled with jail interviews, I fully embrace the uniform for jury trials. I put on my game face and my sharpest suit. I suffer the pantyhose and the beautiful uncomfortable shoes. I care intensely what jurors think; my goal is to persuade them. They expect and prefer the uniform, so I wear my best uniform.

What about going that extra mile for persuasion? I’ve seen unmarried lawyers put on rings that look like wedding bands for trial because they believe jurors will find them more credible. I’ve opposed a prosecutor who always placed a mug with a photo of her children and the caption “#1 Mom” facing the jury. After 9/11, I watched many lawyers suddenly start wearing flag lapel pins. In response to Judge Kopf’s post, Mark Bennett suggested showing a little cleavage to jurors “for the good of the client.” That’s not for me. I actually bought one of those flag pins at Long’s after 9/11, but I never wore it because I felt self-conscious about it. I wouldn’t do any of the things in this paragraph because it would make me feel fake and weird. Figure out where your own comfort zone is, but don’t be fake to jurors. Ever.

I’ve seen plenty of great lawyers reject the uniform, especially down the road after some conservative buttoned up early years. One thing I love about public defenders is the culture of unconventional personalities. I’ve seen lawyers dazzle jurors and win huge cases while wearing clothes that are frumpy, or revealing, or have acres of crazy loud patterns, or are worn to absolute tatters. There are brilliant attorneys out there in orthopedic shoes and sneakers and cowboy boots.

So, be informed and thoughtful and authentic about it. But wear what you want.


On the topic of women in law (follow up on Harvard Law School’s Celebration 60)

“Agaaaa–,” the first bit of baby noise is hushed. I only hear it because I’m back-benching so the young mother with the baby girl strapped to her chest is a few feet behind me, bouncing from side to side.

Across the room from the cooing baby girl, at the front of Austin North lecture hall, the “Front Lines of Law Reform” panel consists of six alumnae luminaries discussing their work on disability rights, sex discrimination, poverty/race connection, Mexican American legal defense, and indigent defense. They range in years of experience from the class of 1988 to the class of 2005. The 80 or so women in the audience (and perhaps 3 men) stretch across six decades of HLS attendance, from the first classes to current students.

Throughout the two days of panels and featured speakers at Celebration 60, we’ve been learning about distinguished careers and inspiring legal work, and have woven into the same discussions the topics of women in law and work-family balance. We have heard the statistics that reveal a significant pay gap between men and women, continuing workplace discrimination against women in a variety of forms, and the pattern of women leaving the practice of law after having children.

minow and warren

(click on this photo or here to click through to the HLS flickr page with Celebration 60 photos).

“Women have babies, I know that’s shocking to you,” says featured speaker Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she describes getting married at age 19 and attending law school with young child. She comes right out and says what many have whispered in small groups: the single biggest problem is that institutions haven’t changed to work for working mothers. And fathers too, of course, but we’ve heard the career study summarized and seen the slides that show the massive exodus of women from practice after having children.

Inside the giant white tent where the meals are served, the tables are marked by decade: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and so on.  Each meal I settle in far from the front in the hinterlands of “the young” with other 1990s alums. At the first dinner, each woman at my table works part-time, from home, or is in “career transition.” I am the only one at the table working full time at an office that sets my hours. This is no small topic, the working mother juggling act. It pervades everything.

Back at the Law Reform panel, the baby enthusiastically screams “agagagrrraayayaaaa!” Her mother pulls her from the carrier and touches her feet to the ground to distract her with practice steps.

The whole room turns to look, with a loud shuruunnnk of swivel chairs turning. All eyes fix on the baby and there is a tense moment during which I wonder if there will be glares or shushes, whether the young mother will rush from the room. Instead, one by one, everyone breaks into broad smiles. The woman who has just recounted having a third of her class drafted in 1969 and being asked “how dare you take a man’s place?” smiles. Panelist Lenora Lapidus, who has just described some of her battles as Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, smiles. Dean Martha Minow, who spoke the day before of the tradition of breaking with tradition, smiles.

There is a unifying moment of everyone’s broad smiles recognizing the fleeting joy of a baby’s first year, and all the challenges of having a legal career as a working mother, and the great unknowns of the professional world that will greet that baby girl in two decades. What might it mean to be a fourth generation feminist?

The first generation feminists, those women admitted to Harvard Law in the 1950s, had to find the one women’s bathroom on campus. They were mocked, ridiculed, treated with hostility by other students and by faculty.  They graduated into a job market that didn’t hire women lawyers. The first generation feminists included Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor, who managed to juggle work and family brilliantly against incredible odds. Remember O’Connor graciously retiring to care for her husband? It was lovely, her picture of balance of work and family.

We in the second generation are struggling to find our footing. Many are leaving law practice entirely and describing it as hostile to working mothers. We have broken into the institutions but we have not yet changed and improved them to accommodate families.  Justices Kagan and Sotomayor have risen through the ranks (brilliantly!) without families; is that significant? Our accomplished peer, national security expert Juliette Kayyem (HLS ’95), was asked recently on NPR (NPR!)  why she’d even want to run for governor of Massachusetts with three children at home (here at 7:15). Our second generation peers are inspiring in their accomplishments, poise and expertise–and in the juggling act many of them are doing behind the scenes.

What might it mean to be in the next generation of women law students? In 2013, 60 years into “the tradition of breaking with tradition” and admitting women into Harvard Law,  students can witness a powerhouse conference presented for and by women. At that conference, they can see hundreds of women talking openly about these challenges and brainstorming about how to make the balancing act of being a woman in law easier, especially at the highest levels as a leader and expert and trailblazer.

And in Austin North on September 28, 2013, students and alums can observe that a young mother who brings her baby is welcomed with broad smiles, noise and all.  There is much yet to accomplish, but that is progress at Harvard Law School.

(Conference coverage is here, photos are here and video links are here.)

60 years to get to 48%.

Next week, I’ll head back to the legal mothership for an event: Harvard Law School will host Celebration 60 (sixty years of admitting women to the law school).


A new exhibit of photographs , which coincides with Celebration 60, profiles some of the pioneering women who attended in the early years. It makes an impression to stare at a photo of one woman in a class full of men, even more to hear them describe the experience. The library’s exhibit description offers this summary:

“Since women were first admitted to HLS in 1950, female students have slowly but surely carved out a place for themselves on campus. Sixty years of female graduates have transformed the HLS campus and student life. As enrollment of women in incoming classes grew slowly from 2.5% of the first entering class to 48% of the Class of 2015.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was there for Celebration 40 during my first year of law school (1993). She was impressive. Kind, candid, witty, gracious, a thoroughly inspiring trailblazer.  Ginsburg graduated first in her class in 1959 (from Columbia after transferring from HLS) and not a single law firm offered her a job. When she told this story in 1993, she’d just become the second woman on the US Supreme Court.

In 2010, I had the pleasure of being in the audience when Diane Sawyer interviewed Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference. When asked how many women should be on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg famously had this exchange (at 1:10) with Sawyer:

“How many women would be enough?” Sawyer asked.

“Nine,” Ginsburg replied with a smile. “There’ve been nine men there for a long time, right? So why not nine women?”

I love that she said that.  However, the number of women entering law school is going down.  A quick non-exhaustive sampling of internet statistics today reveals: The 2012 census reports 50.8% women in the US population. Women outnumber men in 2 and 4 year colleges, masters and doctoral programs.  In contrast, from an all time high of 50% in 1993, enrollment of women in law schools dropped to 46.8% in 2011.

These numbers must correlate to many factors including the economy, but what about the impact of evolving concepts of “career” for women? Can women evaluating careers imagine satisfying lives in legal practice? Doesn’t that impact how attractive it seems for women to choose law school?

This year, the Celebration 60 program brochure is filled with women who have excelled in many phases of “legal careers.” They have moved in and out of courtrooms, baby rooms and classrooms. They have made government policy and written books, become CEOs and judges. Twenty years ago the discussion of women in law was quite different.  In the era of “breaking the glass ceiling” the message seemed (to me) to be: knock down the door, get in there and excel–never let up!  Those first generation feminist trailblazers fought like hell to throw open the doors and, as the second generation of working women, we damn well better walk in there and wow everyone. There was little talk of work-family-life balance or “pauses” in careers.

Today, the internet and bookstores are saturated with writing about leaning in, leaning out, opting in, opting out. The conversation is more realistic and more complicated.

I’ve been a public defender for fourteen of the seventeen years since I graduated in 1996. Right in the middle of the seventeen years, I didn’t practice law for three years. I “paused” and spent time with my family and other pursuits. My belief that public defenders are superheroes and there is no higher calling never wavered, but the transitions in and out of practice were not smooth.  I had to quit my job in one county, take piles of flack for not being a “true believing career PD” (whatever that is), and start over again in another county when I returned.

I’d love to hear from PDs in offices with sabbaticals, extended leaves,  part-time job shares and other creative strategies to increase retention and morale. Too often these creative ideas are characterized as incompatible with trial work. I look forward to hearing some big minds throwing themselves at the career evolution topic next week, and will report back.

After all, 48% is progress, but we’re not there yet.