If it looks like a lawyer and acts like a lawyer...
by Becky Bye
I will never forget the day my parents broke some terrifying news that forever changed my life. After walking home from school on a beautiful New York City autumn afternoon, I opened the door and saw my parents waiting for me. The news: they had decided to move to Colorado. I never will forget the fear and resentment I felt after hearing this.
I couldn’t believe it. What did I do to deserve this? I naively wondered whether Colorado had malls or movie theaters. Were people normal? To mentally prepare for the Colorado lifestyle, I started watching "Bonanza."
I was relieved to find out that the state indeed had malls, movie theaters, diversity and great people. Luckily, Colorado was not as rugged as I presupposed.
I took a break from Colorado when I enrolled in a college in the Northeast. As a pre-freshman orientation activity, I participated in a seven-day camping trip, called the "Wilderness Adventure," in the Adirondacks with future classmates. Everyone else in my group was from the Northeast. Because I was from Colorado, everyone assumed that camping would be a cinch for me. They were wrong. I never had been camping. For example, I knew I needed a backpack to store clothes and camping gear — I literally brought a school backpack. I had no idea that I needed one four times the size. I also bought new hiking boots the day before the trip — little did I know they would blister my feet.
I will never forget the third day. It was hot, humid and uncomfortable. My feet were covered in blisters. Out of nowhere, I spontaneously started crying, surprising everyone around me. I recall thinking that I would be much happier getting a manicure than being in the middle of nowhere on a hot day, in smelly clothes, eating three-day old cheese and sporting a hairdo that resembled a bird’s nest after a hurricane. Based on my camping skills, my campmates soon learned that the Colorado stereotype they had was highly inaccurate. Rest assured, I endured and survived the rest of the trip — barely.
Unfortunately, stereotypes can categorize every aspect of every individual — from skin color and gender, to birthplace, age and profession. I’ve fallen victim to unfair labels in my life; however, I never truly felt the ramifications of stereotyping until I became a lawyer. Before law school, I had my own image of how a lawyer ought to look and act. I pictured a lawyer as a dry-humored, middle-aged man with slicked-back dark hair, a briefcase, a nice suit and a tie.
When I became a lawyer, I was pleasantly surprised that this stereotype was inaccurate. I know lawyers from diverse backgrounds and life stories. These lawyers include a former soap star who still looks like a soap heartthrob, a talented musician who spends free time with a popular band, and a former mechanical engineer currently writing a romance novel. The life stories of these individuals are far from mundane, and their personalities and appearance are completely unlike the fictional Jack McCoys or the real-life Johnny Cochrans whom society identifies as "real lawyers."
When I first meet someone in a professional or personal context, the topic of occupation often arises. If asked, I have told people that I am a lawyer or work for a law firm or for the state legal department. More often than not, the individual assumes I’m not really a lawyer and work in a non-lawyer capacity at these organizations. The notion that I could be a lawyer does not even cross their minds. Many of my colleagues have had similar experiences. These preconceived notions usually are based on age, appearance, personality and gender.
Dramatic lawyer movies and shows such as "The Firm," "Devil’s Advocate," "Law and Order" and "Matlock" portray lawyers who look the same, act the same and have the same characteristics. Then there’s "Legally Blonde," a great comedy about lawyers. The main character’s trials and tribulations are universally funny because she is the antithesis of society’s expectations of lawyers. She is blond, bubbly and behaves nothing like "typical" lawyer.
Fortunately, our reality as lawyers is more along the lines of "Legally Blonde" than "The Firm." Thankfully, many lawyers have interesting, charming personalities and come from unique backgrounds. They are compassionate, well-rounded people with senses of humor. Not looking like a lawyer or acting like a lawyer — particularly outside the office — should have no bearing on whether a person is a successful lawyer. Perhaps as the legal profession becomes more diverse, society’s assumptions about how lawyers should look or act will change.
I probably will never look or act like the universal lawyer stereotype, but I am as much of a lawyer as anyone else who practices law — just like after being in Colorado for nearly 15 years, I still haven’t conformed to the "Bonanza" image I imagined before moving here. And, after my "wilderness adventure," I still avoid camping for more than one night. I’m a Coloradoan, but I would much rather get a manicure than spend a few days roughing it in the mountains with blisters or, even worse, bad hair days.