Perhaps your mother’s adage about what makes for beautiful is not entirely correct.  It was recently announced that economists at the University of Texas-Austin analyzed data from five large surveys of more than 25,000 people conducted between 1971 and 2009 in the US, Canada, Germany and Britain and came up with what may or may not be a surprising conclusion:

Physical beauty gets you both money and happiness.

Participants in the top 15% of people ranked by looks were more than 10% happier than those in the bottom 10% of looks and the extra economic benefit that resulted from beauty accounted for at least half of that extra happiness–evidently better-looking people generally earn more money and marry people both better-looking and also higher-earning.

Another economist at the University of Texas-Austin, Daniel Hamermesh, a leading researcher of beauty and success,  presided over a series of surveys in the United States and Canada just over a decade ago which showed that for men the ugliness “penalty” was -9% in earnings while the beauty premium was +5%.  For women, perhaps surprisingly, the effect was less marked: the ugliness penalty in earnings was -6% while the beauty premium was +4%.

An article in the Economist a few years ago entitled "To Those That Have Shall Be Given" reported on research finding that as a general matter physical attributes associated with beauty also "give clues about intelligence, and that such clues are picked up by other people."

So where do we lawyers stand on the good looks=happiness/earnings/intelligence calculation?

Fortunately, Dr. Hamermesh has looked into that question also.  In his paper  "Beauty, Productivity and Discrimination: Lawyers’ Looks and Lucre," examining the careers of graduates of a large, unnamed American law school (University of Michigan), he found that

  • Those rated attractive on the basis of their matriculation photographs went on to earn higher salaries than their less attractive classmates.
  • Better-looking attorneys who graduated in the 1970s earned more after 5 years of practice than their worse- looking classmates, other things equal, an effect that grew even larger by the 15h year of practice. There was, however, interestingly enough, no impact of beauty on earnings among 1980s graduates.  
  • Women who graduated from law school in the 1970s were better looking overall than women in the 1980s.
  • Attorneys in the private sector were judged better-looking than those in the public sector.
  • Attractiveness may determine which practice group you are in–regulatory lawyers were the worst looking and litigators the best looking.
  • Male attorneys’ probability of attaining an early partnership rose with beauty, which was not true for female attorneys.  

Or, as the question was posed by Above the Law: Are Attractive People Better Lawyers? According to that entry, quoting Hamermesh: “They’re not necessarily better lawyers. They just get paid more.”

Hamermesh also found evidence that beautiful people bring more revenue to their employers than the less-beautiful, at least in the advertising industry.  Among Dutch advertising firms, those with the most beautiful executives had the largest size-adjusted revenues—a difference that exceeded the salary differentials of the firms in question.

Hamermesh conceded that he could not determine from the data whether the beauty effect occurred because clients discriminated in favor of the good-looking or because better-looking lawyers were able to obtain greater financial gain for their clients.

Even more recent research seems to support these findings–such as the role that beauty at a young age may play in making people extroverted, and therefore more likely to have higher earnings and enjoy more happiness-producing relationships, and the advantage that physically attractive children of both sexes have in being seen by their peers as socially skilled (Vaillancourt & Hymel, 2006).

There may also be some anecdotal support for these findings. The looks of attorneys at DavisPolk, one of the more profitable firms in the country, have long been lauded, and started getting extra attention when photos began appearing on the firm website.

However, not everyone is convinced of the reliability of Hamermesh’s and others’ data–for a sampling of the responses ranging from dismissal to skepticism to giving the benefit of the doubt, see comments at the ABA report.

In sum, as the Economist article points out, "sadly reminiscent of the biblical quotation to which the title of this article refers… there is a feedback loop between biology and the social environment that gives to those who have, and takes from those who have not."

By the way, are there any odds in investing in the improvement of our looks?

In Shanghai, where the difference between the ugliness penalty and the beauty bonus was greatest, Dr. Hamermesh looked at the relationship between women’s spending on their cosmetics and clothes and their income.Higher beauty expenditures did correlate with a small increase in earnings, but not enough to pay for them in a strictly financial sense–the beauty premium generated earnings worth only 15% of the money expended.

What about the benefits of plastic surgery? Soohyung Lee, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Maryland in College Park, found by studying before and after photos of members on a dating website “that plastic surgery is not profitable in a monetary sense.” “I can’t comment on the happiness,” she added.

So what do we do with this information?  Hamermesh points out that it is not illegal to discriminate on the basis of looks, and, all else being equal, it might be a perfectly legitimate business strategy to hire the more beautiful candidate.  In these times of continuing economic pressure on law firms, being attractive may be more important than ever for gaining employment and hiring attractive lawyers may be just the kind of hedge that law firms can live with–at no cost added.