Is a Misinterpretation of “Professionalism” Being Used to Exclude Attorneys?

professionalism in hair

Commission Chair Martin Sinclair contributed to this article.

Last year, I explored professionalism vs. professional identity in my blog post “Has Your Professional Identity Morphed into Something You Don’t Recognize?”

Now I’d like to take a deeper dive into what professionalism means and how it can be used in ways that may not be intended.

This topic was raised last fall during law school orientation at the University of Chicago Law School. During the professionalism portion of the orientation, which the Commission helps to organize, a student asked about the role of professionalism in the careers of lawyers.

She said that while she understood the importance of professionalism and civility among the bench and bar, these concepts can be a double-edged sword. She then asked what happens when professionalism becomes a tool for exclusion instead of a source of pride.

The question made an impression on our Commissioners and staff in attendance and leads me to pose this question: Has practicing “professionalism” moved away from its intention?

What professionalism isn’t

Before joining the Commission, I worked in admissions and diversity recruitment and had the pleasure of teaching in a legal education opportunity program. Through this work, I collaborated with many promising students, but one student’s story sticks out.

This student was smart, charismatic, and a great legal writer; he was destined to be a successful lawyer. For anonymity, I’ll just describe him as a tall African American male with dreadlocks.

It’s important to note that I kept an open-door policy with students. This allowed me to foster strong mentoring relationships, many of which I maintain to this day. I mention this because the students may have felt more comfortable sharing information with me than they would with other professors and administrators.

When I met this student, it was clear he took great pride in his hair. He loved his dreadlocks. He always kept them re-twisted and neatly done. It was important to him, regardless of his hectic schedule.

When I was no longer teaching this student, I continued to see him in the hallways and common areas. But one day he walked by and I didn’t recognize him. The dreadlocks were gone.

I asked what happened to his beautiful hair. He said that while prepping for on-campus interviews, he was told that his hair was “unprofessional” and may impact the number of callbacks he received.

Put another way, a promising law student was being pressured to change himself or face exclusion in the name of “professionalism.”

I was shocked and, to be honest, a bit angry. Are we sending our future lawyers out into the world with the impression that, to be successful, they must fit into a certain mold? Might they come to believe that their appearance is more important than their morals, ethics, and talent?

Professionalism shouldn’t be used as an assimilation tool by the dominant culture. Instead, professionalism should be a way to support all lawyers in honoring their traditions while upholding the oath we took to join the profession.

So, what is professionalism?

Each year, the Commission helps facilitate professionalism orientations at Illinois’ nine law schools.

students taking professionalism pledge

During these orientations, 1Ls are introduced to the core concepts of attorney professionalism and pledge to uphold the highest standards and ideals of the legal profession, including service without prejudice, integrity without compromise, and civility and professionalism in all interactions. But what is this notion of “professionalism” that we’re asking students to uphold?

Professionalism is conducting yourself in a way that exemplifies the highest ideals of the legal profession. It’s a reverence for legal institutions, the practice of law, and all those who seek it, as well as demonstrating respect for yourself and others (especially the opposition).

Professionalism is striving to attain the highest level of legal skill and competence and working to improve the law, the legal profession, and your communities through pro bono work and public service.

Professionalism is a constant commitment to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion and to prioritizing your health and well-being and that of your colleagues.

As Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer has said, “Professionalism is being good at what you do and making sure what you do is good.”

As the respondents of our recent Survey on Professionalism indicated, when lawyers choose civility and professionalism they can improve the delivery of legal services, build public trust in the justice system, and elevate the role of an attorney as a public citizen with special responsibility for the quality of justice rendered.

Applying the characteristics of professionalism

Our Chair Martin Sinclair, a partner at Sperling & Slater, P.C, says that some aspects of professionalism are simple, like arriving at court on time, being prepared, and ensuring your demeanor reflects a reverence for the process.

“Attorneys who demonstrate professionalism acknowledge the interests of their opposing counsel are just as valuable as their own; they argue the facts of the case and listen to the other side,” Sinclair says.

Other aspects of professionalism, however, aren’t as straightforward.

One intuitive starting point for Illinois lawyers should be the aspirational guidance found in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct. I’ve pulled some examples below that are relevant to the case of my student.

  • “[4] In all professional functions a lawyer should be competent, prompt, and diligent.”

Martin Sinclair delivering the professionalism pledgeIn addition to getting into law school, my student was accepted into a legal education program focused on developing skills that would help students succeed in law school and the legal field.

He was prompt not only for events important to his future, such as interviews and networking events, but also for class. Never late and never disruptive, he also demonstrated diligence by always being prepared for class and contributing in ways that added value to class discussions.

  • “[5] …A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials.”

The comments about my student’s unprofessional hair demonstrated a disrespect for someone who, in the future, would likely be serving the legal system as a lawyer. Based on this comment, he may have felt intimidated by how recruiters would view him as his whole self and their impression of the way he celebrated his culture through his hair.

(As an aside, a new Illinois law bans schools from discriminating against hairstyles historically associated with race, ethnicity, or hair texture, including, but not limited to, hairstyles such as braids, locks, and twists.)

  • “[6] …a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

People naturally feel more comfortable when an authority figure looks like them. They can be more open to participating in the legal system and pursuing career paths that follow in the footsteps of those they’re exposed to.

We must change the perception of what lawyers and judges look like to better represent the diverse makeup of our nation.

Interrupting our vision of a lawyer

According to Elizabeth Cooper, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, to correct microaggressions and issues of implicit bias (like those my student experienced), institutions must prioritize cultural proficiency.

In her article “The Appearance of Professionalism,” she explains it as:

“Cultural proficiency is described as the ability to learn about, live productively among, and work efficiently with people whose cultural expectations differ from one’s own. To reach this goal, an institution must embrace five principles: value diversity; develop the capacity for cultural self-assessment; become conscious of the dynamics likely to occur when cultures interact; emphasize the importance of learning about underrepresented cultural groups and their experiences; and develop a rich understanding of cultural diversity to enhance communication, decision-making, and problem-solving. Above all, institutional leadership must commit to being consistent and deliberate in this process.”

And I agree. Cultural proficiency may help with situations like my student’s, but it’s not enough.

To truly stop using the misinterpretation of professionalism as an exclusionary tool, I urge legal professionals to do two things.

First, get back to the basics. We must reexamine how we define professionalism and the ways it appears in our lives. Use the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct as your aspirational guide. The Commission also offers several free online CLEs that equip lawyers with the tools they need to navigate incivility and build cultural competence.

Second, be open and ready to confront, combat, and interrupt established visions of professionalism. This can be uncomfortable, and I struggle with it myself.

I’ve told you that a member of the legal profession advised my student that he should look a certain way to be considered professional. Well, I’ve experienced this too. It happened first at the beginning of law school and has occurred many times after. Sometimes the weight of those words reappears on my shoulders.

So, if you’ve ever taken one of my CLEs or seen me speak publicly, know that I’ve been concerned that people won’t listen to me unless my hair is a certain way. The warped idea of professionalism reappears, and I wonder if my hair will be a distraction to the message I want to convey.

This is something I work on daily, so I understand that change doesn’t happen immediately. However, as I’ve said many times before in blogs, there is no time like the present.

We must continue to bring awareness to the idea that a misinterpretation of professionalism can be used as an exclusionary tool and refocus our efforts on characteristics that ensure the best outcomes for our clients, legal institutions, and the practice of law.

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