Attractive People May or May Not Be Better Lawyers, But They Do Get Paid More

Earlier this month, your Above the Law editors had a little debate about whether attractive people make better lawyers. Apparently a couple of economists asked a similar question a decade ago. Jeff Biddle and Daniel Hamermesh published a paper in the Journal of Labor Economics in 1998 titled Beauty, Productivity, and Discrimination: Lawyers’ Looks and Lucre.

Gavel bang to University of Florida law professor Daniel Sokol, for pointing us in the direction of the article. It’s a fascinating read. We learned that:

* lawyers in the private sector are more attractive than those in the public sector;
* ugly looks-challenged people clerk;
* litigators are the most attractive attorneys, and that regulatory lawyers are the least attractive.
* being really, really, super good-looking makes men more likely to become partners, but makes women less likely to become partners; and
* attractive lawyers bill at higher rates and make more money.

The economists looked at law school graduates from the 1970s and 1980s. They created a control group by focusing on the graduates from just one law school, referred to as “Law School X” in the paper: “a highly selective institution that has typically matriculated and graduated between 300 and 400 students each year.”

We spoke to Professor Hamermesh this week about his research into how being hot helps lawyers’ careers. It’s not hiring partners who are solely to blame for this, though. The selective pressure comes from lawyers’ clients. Hamermesh shared his insights, and also revealed to us which law school provided his lovely guinea pigs…

“Law School X” is the University of Michigan. The paper’s authors displayed an impressive understanding of the legal career track — both public and private. We found out why. Professor Hamermesh is married to a U. Mich. Law ’87 grad. Through her, he knew the school had a “facebook” (the old-fashioned kind). The researchers determined beauty ratings by having four people (a man and a woman under 35 and a man and a woman over 35) rate the head shots on a scale of 1 to 5. Michigan Law grads from 1971 – 1978 and 1981 -1988 were included in the study, though Hamermesh excised his wife from the study, because he didn’t want people rating her looks.

(Hamermesh has other legal ties. His son is a ’98 Michigan Law grad, who clerked on the Third Circuit and is now a firm partner in Philly. His brother is a Yale Law grad who is now a corporate law professor at Widener.)

Hamermesh specializes in the study of attractiveness. He has a Princeton Press book coming out next year titled “Beauty Pays.” The findings in the Lawyer Lucre study did not particularly surprise him; he has seen over and over again the advantage of beauty in earnings and career success in professions from quarterbacks to prostitutes.

For lawyers, attractiveness alone can account for up to a 12% difference in earnings. This is due in part to the fact that more attractive people go into the higher-earning private sector, while less-attractive people go to the public sector. But even within the private sector, beauty pays dividends, or at least more and higher billable hours:

[W]e can infer that better-looking lawyers work longer hours at year 15, but most of the effect of beauty on earnings is a pure wage effect, not simply a matter of bringing in more business at the same hourly pay. In this cohort, better-looking midcareer attorneys were billing at higher rates, not just billing more hours.

Like prostitutes, most lawyers are in the service industry. And that means clients determine their rates. From the paper:

The success of a law firm depends on its ability to attract new clients and keep existing ones, with responsibility for this falling more heavily on the more senior lawyers or partners. A firm deciding to hire or promote a junior attorney will keep this in mind. If, other things being equal, attractiveness gives a lawyer an edge in marketing to new clients and schmoozing with old ones, and if clients prefer to associate with attractive lawyers, then the latter will generate greater earnings for themselves and their firms. In the public sector, however, the ability to market one’s services to clients is unnecessary — the clientele is “captive,” and there is no profit motive. Attorneys certainly do not have to worry about attracting clients to maintain their earnings. Thus, if consumers’ choices of lawyers lie behind a beauty effect in lawyers’ earnings, the effect should be larger for attorneys in the private sector, and private-sector attorneys should be more attractive than their public-sector counterparts.

That’s exactly what Hamermesh and Biddle found. The more attractive law school graduates tended to gravitate towards higher-paying private firm jobs, while the “looks-challenged” bunch sought out clerkships and public sector jobs. The study gathered employment data from 5 years and 15 years after graduation. At the 15-year mark, the attractive public sector lawyers tend to head to the private sector, while the unattractive private sector lawyers tend to go into the public sector.

And within the private sector, attractiveness may determine which practice group you are in.

“We found that regulatory lawyers are the worst looking and litigators are the best looking,” said Hamermesh. “In my book, I use L.A. Law to illustrate that point. You’ve got [good-looking] Harry Hamlin as the divorce attorney, and Michael Tucker who is more troll-like as the tax attorney.”

Other interesting notes were that women who graduated from law school in the 1970s were better looking overall than women in the 1980s, which, according to the paper, “may result from good-looking women’s greater beliefs during the 1960s that their beauty would pay off in the legal profession.”

The only thing that’s ever surprised Hamermesh in all of his studies of attractiveness and earnings is that, for women, being very attractive means they are less likely to make partner. The data on this was bell shaped. The least attractive and most attractive women were least likely to make partner. This was not the case for men. The more attractive guys are, the more likely they are to make partner.

“My speculation is that the very good-looking women are probably getting married,” said Hamermesh.

Beauty for women and men was more important for 70s grads than for 80s grads in locking down firm jobs. In the 1980s, firms were in such a boom period that they were willing to hire ugly workhorses:

In many law firms older attorneys are responsible for attracting and retaining clients, and their good looks might work to their advantage in this area. It may be that firms responded to the increase in demand for legal services mainly by hiring more young associates to produce the legal output for the growing number of clients whom the senior attorneys were attracting. Under these circumstances the importance of young lawyers’ ability to produce high-quality work under the direction of a senior attorney may have grown relative to their future ability to market the firm’s services.

By that logic, in these times of economic distress for law firms, when clients are harder to come by, being attractive is more important than ever for lawyers.

So we have an answer to our question: Are Attractive People Better Lawyers?

“They’re not necessarily better lawyers,” said Hamermesh. “They just get paid more.”

Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers’ Looks and Lucre [National Bureau of Economic Research]

Earlier: Are Attractive People Better Lawyers?

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