I’m the Founder & CEO of Stephenson Law, a forward-thinking, innovative law firm that puts people at the heart of everything it does.
Research has found that people with tattoos are no less likely to be employed than those without ink and that average earnings are the same for both groups. However, as a heavily tattooed lawyer in the U.K., this doesn’t reflect my experience of how tattoos are viewed in the legal industry, and I know I’m not alone.
Despite the fact that around 30% of U.K. citizens aged 25 to 39 have tattoos, it’s not illegal for employers to discriminate against employees for having tattoos. It’s therefore potentially legal for someone to be fired because they refuse to, or are unable to, cover up their tattoos.
While attitudes toward tattoos are generally changing for the better, my view is that the legal industry is behind other more forward-thinking industries in accepting them as normal. I spent years working in private practice being told that I needed to cover up the tattoos on my arm. It was even frowned upon when you could see my tattoos through my blouse. And I hear similar stories all the time: I once hired a paralegal with a tiny tattoo on her foot who was forced to wear a bandage over it at her previous firm. Bonkers.
When I started my own law firm, I made the decision to never cover my tattoos again; I even took it a step further and got my hand tattooed, ensuring there was no turning back. For the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I credit my firm’s growth, in part, to the fact that my tattoos differentiate me from my distinctly “gray” competitors.
But it hasn’t been without challenge, particularly on LinkedIn, where I openly discuss the question of tattoos and professionalism with my 55,000 followers. Some say they would never instruct me on the basis of my appearance, while others say that my tattoos are an indication that I have “poor judgment.” Some express concern that visible tattoos would taint the company’s image, and there’s even been an accusation that they are a result of mental health issues.
There is, unquestionably, a demographic that still believes there is no place for tattoos in the legal profession, and anyone with visible tattoos runs the risk of being stigmatized, particularly if you’re a woman, like me. Believe it or not, studies have found that tattooed women are judged more harshly than tattoed men. Tattooed women are often seen as more promiscuous, as heavy drinkers, and as less caring, intelligent and honest. Not exactly qualities you’d be looking for in your lawyer.
A tattoo, in its simplest form, is a form of self-expression. Choosing the artwork and its location is a very personal decision that no one other than the individual themselves can fully understand. But despite this, they still lead to negative judgments being made about that individual that could be completely unfounded. I can categorically confirm that my tattoos don’t affect my ability to practice law, run a business or do anything else. But clearly, not everyone shares my opinion.
Historically, there are many examples of tattoos carrying negative connotations, including being an indication of criminal or deviant character. Fast-forward to 2022, and, despite the prevalence of tattoos in modern culture, some still associate tattoos with deviance and negative character compared to people without tattoos.
It’s commonly understood that first impressions are important, and our biases result in us making generalized judgments as to the general character of someone based on their appearance alone. In the event that someone holds negative stereotypes associated with tattoos, they may consequently associate such negative attributes with all tattooed individuals. And so, the cycle continues.
The business case for diversity is clear, but diversity is about so much more than the characteristics protected from discrimination by law. It’s also about our backgrounds, cultures and perspectives and how we choose to express ourselves through our appearance. Creating a culture of inclusion and belonging creates a space where everyone is welcome, including marginalized groups and tattooed individuals capable of adding tremendous value to the business.
The lack of inclusion in the legal profession almost drove me out of it. Instead, I chose to start my own law firm where I could work on my own terms, and my business has become a place where lawyers can express themselves without judgment. I am experiencing firsthand the benefits of allowing employees to be their authentic selves at work, and I wish all law firms could see what I see.
At my firm, we openly encourage every member of the team to be their authentic selves at work, and we do this by leading by example, talking about it openly and creating a supportive environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable. Trust is key. It can take some time for new joiners to ditch their corporate personas and reveal themselves to us, but watching it happen is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
We see the impact on our bottom line. A more engaged and productive workforce develops stronger and more meaningful relationships with our clients and each other, ultimately resulting in better business performance. It really is a no-brainer.
The stigma associated with tattoos still exists, particularly within traditional professions such as law. For lawyers and other professionals, such as myself, who wish to express themselves through body art, we still run the risk of having to justify our decisions and fight harder for our place within the industry than our uninked counterparts.
Do I believe this should be the case? Absolutely not. Will I continue being the voice of tattooed lawyers until it changes? Yes.
I also hope more lawyers with tattoos feel empowered to stop covering them up, because the only way they’ll become normalized is if seeing them on lawyers is no longer a unique situation.