Are tattoos taboo?

Sandra Rosier discusses how to express yourself in the conservative world of law
Sandra Rosier discusses how to express yourself in the conservative world of law

Dear Sandra,
My niece is a straight-A business administration major with her sights on law school. She has a noticeable tattoo on her wrist. When she asked me whether her tattoo would jeopardize her chances of being hired, I smiled and said, “Of course not, sweetie.” What do you think?
Old School Auntie

Today, tattoos and piercings are far more prevalent among the twenty-something set than they were in my day. None of my friends had tattoos in high school and university. Hmm … I wonder what that says about me? Anyway, back then tattoos were a social statement reserved for self-proclaimed misfits and non-conformists. These days, it’s no big deal. Most of my own niece’s girlfriends have tattoos and they are all in college or university. In most cases, it’s not a social statement or even any kind of statement. It’s quite common to see the moms in my middle-class neighbourhood with a discreet tat above an ankle. Two of my close colleagues have tattoos. I’m thinking of getting one myself to celebrate a milestone birthday coming up, and I’m as square as they come. (Who even says “square” anymore?)

So it’s safe to say based on anecdotal evidence and observation that the discreet tattoo is pretty ubiquitous and is not likely to sway an interviewer one way or another. Firms are rational and supremely self-interested in their calculation of “fit.” Few would pass up a good candidate for something as silly as a small tattoo.

But there are tattoos and there are tattoos. What about when body art isn’t so discreet? Tattoos and piercings are no different than any other expression of personal style. I call it the cognitive dissonance test. Will you fit seamlessly into the culture? Showing up to a law firm interview with a blue mohawk, yellow fluorescent pants or 10 rings on each brow will cause dissonance. If the dragon snaking around your throat and giant bamboo tubes in your distended earlobes are distracting me from seeing what an exceptional candidate you are, the decision not to hire you will be officially attributed to objective metrics. But you can bet my discomfort with your style was the driving factor behind why you weren’t hired.

Fortunately, a certain level of anthropological self-selection usually occurs to save us from having to face such a moral dilemma. Usually, the kind of people who have no interest in a traditional legal job with all of its trappings would never make the Faustian choice of removing the tribal bone from their septum for a spot on Bay Street. We tend to prefer to remain in our own native habitat surrounded by the friendly and familiar.

The modern legal workplace is more accommodating and less stifling than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s still a pretty conservative environment. Changing to the point of self-betrayal to get any job is almost never worth the price of admission. Today, I would tell your niece that maybe the right question to ask is not whether a law firm will hire you in spite of your tattoos, piercings or unique personal style but whether you really want to work there if that’s all they can see when they look at you. Fit goes both ways.

With a rebel yell
You can still express yourself in the conservative world of law

    • As a summer student at a large Bay Street firm, I wore funky plastic platform sandals. Gasp. Sometimes fitting in is about confidence and comfort level.
    • You need not cease to be your unique self when you become a lawyer. Though a fab pair of L.K. Bennetts can redeem almost any style. (Wink.)
    • An associate at the Boston firm where I worked adapted her goth style by dialing back the vamp with toned-down make-up and elegantly tailored black suits.
    • When I clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Ian Binnie sometimes rocked a vintage powder blue suit on special days. Turns out that he was at least 10 years ahead of that trend!
    • Don’t bother going out of your way to hide a discreet tattoo or piercing; you can’t hide them forever.
    • Never experiment with your personal style just before a job interview (or your wedding day). Not the time to try out those pink highlights.
    • A friend of mine in law school experimented with Lee Press-On Nails during her summer interviews. Two of the nails popped off on the first handshake. Awkward!

Sandra Rosier is a tax advisor in Toronto. Need advice? Email

Illustration by Bob Hambly