“Are Attractive People Better Lawyers?” was the title of a recent post on the Above the Law blog. What prompted the question was a quotation from an unnamed hiring “professional” who acknowledged that she would write “This person is attractive” on an applicant’s cover letter before forwarding it to law firms. In her experience, “whether they admit it or not, many employers feel that having pretty female employees will reflect well on their firm.” To which one Above the Law editor responded: “So pretty people have an advantage in the world. D’uh.”
Yet while this is not exactly breaking news, it is surprising to note the extent of the advantage. My recently released book, The Beauty Bias, reviews a cottage industry of studies finding that attractive individuals are more likely to be viewed as intelligent, likeable and good. They are also are more likely to be hired and promoted and to earn higher salaries. Law is no exception. In a famous study, “Lawyers’ Looks and Lucre,” economists Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh estimated that attractiveness may account for as much as a 12% difference in attorneys’ earnings.
So why whine about the inevitable? We live in the world pictured by a New Yorker cartoon in which one white male professional reassures another: “Not to worry. I’m going to put our best looking people on the job.” As the Above the Law editor noted, “like it or not,” many colleagues and clients prefer “eye candy.” It is “true in high school” and it is true in legal practice. Get over it.
This is, of course, an argument similar to those that legal employers once used to justify discrimination against racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians. Clients and colleagues just wouldn’t feel as comfortable with these groups. The current rationalization for appearance bias is problematic for much the same reason. Attractiveness is a highly imperfect proxy for the qualities that make for effective lawyering. The difficulty is not so much the bump for the beautiful as the penalties for those who fail to measure up. Adverse treatment on the basis of physical characteristics reinforces invidious stereotypes and compromises merit principles.