“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.

It also compounds other disadvantages based on gender, race and ethnicity. So, for example, women face greater pressure than men to be attractive and greater penalties for falling short. They spend vastly more time and money on appearance, partly because they are judged more harshly than men for overweight and age-related characteristics. Unlike their male colleagues, female professionals do not achieve gravitas with their wrinkles. For racial and ethnic minorities, the darker the skin and the less “Anglo” their features, the greater the likelihood of workplace bias. In one survey of some 1,600 minority professionals, even sterling credentials could sometimes be overshadowed by racially identified hair styles, jewelry and grooming choices.

Our preoccupation with appearance also carries other costs. Americans spend more money on beauty than social services, and much of the expenditure falls short of its intended effects. Intelligent professionals squander billions of dollars on unsuccessful weight-loss products and what dermatologists label “cosmetic hoo hah.” Almost four-fifths of American women suffer foot or back problems largely related to what we described in high school as “killer” shoes. Some of the nation’s most distinguished female lawyers are literally hobbled by their footwear.

This is not to discount the pleasure and health-related benefits that sometimes accompany a focus on appearance. Nor is to suggest that discrimination based on attractiveness is our most serious form of bias. Rather, the point is simply that the price we pay for such prejudice is greater than is commonly recognized and that more can be done to challenge its most inequitable forms.

LEGAL REMEDIES

Law is at least part of the answer. About half of Americans already support legal remedies against appearance bias, and more might do so if they knew how widespread the problem was and how remedies in fact worked. Reports of discrimination based on appearance appear at least as widespread as other forms of prohibited bias such as that based on sex and race, and higher than religious, age or ethnic discrimination.

In the one state and six local jurisdictions banning some forms of appearance discrimination, my research finds no barrage of loony litigation. On balance, the laws appear to have some modest effect in remedying, publicizing and deterring overt bias. Enactment of more such prohibitions would at least stamp out hiring practices like the one noted earlier.

For most legal workplaces, however, formal prohibitions are only a small piece of the solution. Much bias is unconscious or unexpressed, and the costs of trying to prove it are likely to be prohibitive. But more informal efforts can focus on changing the culture and challenging practices that stigmatize or sexualize lawyers on the basis of appearance. An example of a teachable moment was the 2008 survey to discover the “hottest female associate” at Skadden Arps. After the poll surfaced in the media, an embarrassed leadership suspended its operation and denounced it as “inappropriate” and inconsistent with Skadden values. The survey then reappeared on Gawker’s Web site, where comments from disgruntled associates cast doubt on how widely the firm’s professed values were shared. A typical posting was “So who complained? Humorless partners or attention deprived plain women who felt neglected?”

Beauty may only be skin deep, but the price of prejudices is more substantial. Lawyers have been at the forefront of other campaigns against invidious discrimination. More need to join this effort as well.

Deborah L. Rhode is a professor of law and the director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University. Her book, The Beauty Bias, was just published by Oxford University Press.