© 2024 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Justice Isn’t Blind: The Impact of Lawyer Appearance on Judicial Decision Making

illustration of scrubby and well-dressed lawyers
Randy Eccles
NPR Illinois/Adobe Firefly


Many of us look for things that predict success when we are in the market for a lawyer. Maybe that means past victories they’ve had in court, the prestige of the law school they attended, or a recommendation from trusted friends or family. In reality, all of these things might be irrelevant when predicting how likely a lawyer is to win your case. In new forthcoming research, I find evidence that some lawyers win their cases for a seemingly irrelevant reason- how attractive they’re perceived to be.

Psychologists believe that attractiveness is one of the most widely used “heuristics” (the academic term for mental shortcuts) that we use in everyday decision making. Basically, we use others' appearance as a shortcut to make a judgement on qualities that are difficult to observe. In the workplace, studies have shown that better-looking people are more likely to be considered qualified applicants, earn promotions, and receive higher compensation. In school, better-looking students are more likely to receive attention from their teachers, earn better grades, and be more popular socially. In the doctor’s office, better-looking patients receive more attention from their doctor and are considered healthier, while better-looking doctors are trusted more by their patients.

Not to be left out, judges, too, have shown they take notice of others’ attractiveness (or lack thereof). Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun often took notes during the Court’s oral arguments that contained legal analysis, observations on the behavior of his colleagues, and some surprising evaluations of the lawyers arguing before him. “Plump,” “hairpiece with double-chin,” and “young, sandy, nice looking,” were all among the descriptions he gave to individual lawyers. Blackmun’s colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, advised male lawyers that they should never appear in court with “long hair in a ponytail”, and US Court of Appeals Judge Ruggero Aldisert went a step further and wrote that a lawyer’s appearance was a critical part of their effort to persuade judges. Further still, suggestions for lawyers’ appearance are explicitly mentioned in the guidelines for oral argument at both the US Supreme Court and the US Courts of Appeals level.

differing headshots
Figure 1: Two Examples of Professional Images Used for Lawyer Attractiveness Ratings

But do all these observations about appearance really influence the decision making of judges? Turns out the answer to that question is “yes.” The reason is twofold: (1) judges have a lot of work to do and (2) when they are overworked they behave just like the rest of us. In the US federal judiciary, judges hear more cases than there are days in a year. For each case, they are required to evaluate legal arguments, often delivered by unfamiliar lawyers. In the mind of a busy judge, attractive lawyers are implicitly associated with positive qualities, such as ideological agreement or sound legal reasoning. For an easy case, a judge might be able to ignore this implicit advantage, but in a tough case, the attribution of these qualities to a lawyer’s argument is enough to be the difference between winning and losing.

This theory is supported by an analysis I performed on lawyers that are equal, save their attractiveness. In other words, I compared (or in causal inference terms, “matched”) two lawyers that were educated at similar schools, had similar professional backgrounds, and represented similar clients, with the only difference being that one is considered attractive and one is not. I fielded a survey in which respondents rated the attractiveness of lawyers based on professional images obtained from the lawyers’ websites. The sample of lawyers included all of those that orally-argued cases at the US Courts of Appeals from 2017-2019. The photos were standardized in terms of size, color, and background. Two such examples are included in Figure 1.

The matched lawyers were then compared based on their performance against a common opponent, the US government. With a final dataset containing more than 3,000 judicial votes and 1,000 cases, I find that more attractive lawyers are consistently and significantly more likely to win individual judges’ votes and cases than their less attractive counterparts. Figure 2 displays the predicted probability of a lawyer winning a case based on their attractiveness rating. When all other characteristics are held equal, a lawyer with an attractiveness score of 3 has probability 0.312 of winning a case against the US government. This probability increases to 0.368 with a score of 5, 0.429 with a score of 7, and 0.492 with a score of 9. This equates to a roughly 6 percent increase in the likelihood of success with every two-unit increase in attractiveness scores.

This effect holds even when accounting for traditional predictors of success like ideology, experience, and financial resources. In addition, I re-ran the analysis with alternative attractiveness ratings from a machine learning algorithm, a second survey based on the lawyer’s appearance in courtroom video recordings, and based on a lawyer’s rating relative to their opponent. In each replication, more attractive lawyers are significantly more likely to win their cases.

Figure 2: Predicted Probability of Winning a Case Based on a Lawyer’s Attractiveness Rating

These findings are relevant to multiple audiences. Evidence of a seemingly outside factor like attractiveness influencing decision-making flies in the face of most expert theories of judicial behavior. To the extent outside factors influence decision-making, it will complicate experts’ ability to explain why judges make the decisions they do.

But more importantly, these results raise serious concerns about equal justice under law. The famous cliché “justice is blind” implies impartiality and objectivity in the legal system. It suggests that decisions are made based on authoritative texts, precedent, and unique case facts, rather than personal characteristics of the parties or their lawyers. However, if attractive lawyers have an inherent advantage, it raises doubts about just how fair the courtroom can be. In short, these results have serious implications for any person that interacts with the US justice system. So, next time you're in legal hot water, remember: a sharp suit and a winning smile might just be the keys to unlocking courtroom success!

UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership - Research