Monday, October 26, 2009

Looking Like Gentlemen


I hate suits. I didn’t always hate suits; it’s a product of law school.

Before I came to law school I loved dressing up. I owned 4 suits before I even moved to Denver, I was often the “fancy” one in my office.

Then last year I was applying for some legal jobs and the career development woman got inside my head. By the end of the “prep” process she has me convinced that not only did I not know how to interview, but that I didn’t know how to dress for an interview (Why I didn’t remind myself that I’d gotten an offer at literally every interview I’ve ever been on before law school, I will never know). According to her, I had to be in a black suit for a legal interview. I could not wear my black pumps with a peep toe, I should wear jewelry but it should be minimal, a white shirt is best. In my black suit, white shirt, and closed toed pumps I looked more like a cheese cake factory waiter than a successful attorney.

Since then, I’ve been morally opposed to the black suit ensemble. When I have to put a suit on I go with one of my cute brown ones.

Today I was reading Kenji Yoshino’s Covering, a book about American society’s insistence that underrepresented groups downplay a “disfavored” trait in order to fit into mainstream society. A gay Japanese American, Yoshino often describes covering from a gay perspective. He points out that covering is different from “passing” as straight because society no longer demands that gays, women, or people of color necessarily hide their identity; instead, it demands that underrepresented groups don’t display the traits of that identity. For example, it’s fine to be gay just don’t “flaunt” it.
While reading Yoshino’s chapter on gender covering I got angry. Suddenly, I could explain my new found opposition to suits. Yoshino references Lani Guinier’s book Becoming Gentlemen which discusses gender dynamics in legal education. In it Guinier references a 1991 study where researchers found that, “although women and men entered the University of Pennsylvania Law School with identical credentials, men were two to three times more likely to rise to the top 10 percent of their class. The book explains this discrepancy by arguing that long after traditionally male institutions admit women, the retain cultures favoring men.” Gggrrrr! Men with the same credentials as women are 2-3 times more successful in the law school environment!? I knew a stat like this had to exist, but seeing the empirical findings is maddening.

During orientation, DU told me they were going to train me to “think like a lawyer.” I realized very quickly that the lawyer I was suppose to think like was rich, white, male, and Protestant. Thinking like him meant abandoning my own identities. The plain black suit and white shirt are the physical manifestation of this man I will never be. I will always look awkward in his clothing because it was not made for me. Sure, you can tailor suits to a woman’s body (I won’t deny that my brown skirt suit is one of the fiercer things I own), but ultimately it’s an imitation. It’s women trying to play the man game, and when we’re trying to immolate something we’re inherently not, we will always look like awkward imitations.

I know I have to wear a suit sometimes. But I can wear it in the way I wore it before law school. I can wear it on my own terms; not the strangely bland, androgynous, and conscripted terms forced on me during my 1L year.

Side note: if they want androgyny, part of me really wants to give it to “them.” The Fall J.Crew catalog has me all but convinced that I could totally rock a bow tie. Hey, if I’m going to wear man clothes I might as well be a little ironic about it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Equal Justice Works

I was in DC this weekend for the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair which was both nice and frustrating.

The frustrating part was that the career fair included a chance to interview, something DU's career office neglected to tell us in time to actually schedule interviews. Awesome. DU's Public Interested office sent out an email letting students know about the fair (and also the opportunity for funding) in the beginning of October, the deadline to submit resumes for interviews was Sept. 14th.

Now, this would be a little frustrating but excusable as an oversight or mistake if it wasn't for how OCIs (on campus interviews) are handled. I decided over the summer that, in order to maintain my authentic self, I wouldn't participate in OCIs. I know that the traditional law path isn't for me and I didn't want to measure myself by the traditional measuring stick. I didn't want to see myself as a failure if I didn't land a job that would have been a poor fit in the first place. I don't think I want to work at a big firm (especially not right away) and I didn't want to participate in the OCI process just because everyone else thought it was important. OCIs don't include non-profit work, so why should I make them a priority.

Then the emails started showing up.

The first handful were easy to delete. Take that law school rat race! But by the time emails 30-50 showed up, I started to question myself. Am I wrong for rejecting this? Should I be freaking out about it the way all my peers are? The career center has sent 50 emails, this must be important. I finally sent the career center an email reminding them that I'm interested in public interest work and to please take me off the OCI email list. They sent back a very polite email (but didn't take me off the OCI list) the highlight of which was: "We also have a number of handout materials about non-traditional careers, a shelf dedicated to materials about alternative careers, and our career counselors are available for appointments to help students explore ideas and opportunities for alternative careers." Pamphlets! Goody! Thanks career development center, that's almost as helpful as the time you told me to google for non-profits that might have local legal departments.

Fast forward to this month. When I saw that the career/public interest office had sent out the information about this career fair two weeks AFTER the interview registration deadline, I wanted to scream. Failing to send out one on-time email for public interest opportunities, but sending out 50+ emails about OCIs does not tell me that my interest are a priority. It tells me that I should conform to the law school norm and that the work I want to do isn't valuable.

On the up side, the conference itself seemed very well organized and included employers from across the country. Even if DU hasn't found a way to be more responsive to the diverse career goals of its students, it was nice to see that there are many organizations that have. Also working in my favor is that I'm only a 2L, now that I know about this conference I can be more proactive next year...and I can help my peers to do the same. As part of the requirements for funding I have to do a write up of the event, I plan to give feedback about my disappointment with the inability to interview. Hopefully this will help others get information more quickly next year. It's generous and exciting that DU has funding available for these sorts of things, hopefully next year the funding can be utilized by people who are heading to DC for interviews and not just "table talk."