There used to be a largely unspoken dress code for lawyers. Things have gotten more casual over the years, but is that a good thing for the legal profession? Do looks matter? Does dressing more casually make lawyers more approachable, or does it reduce their influence over others? Is a “power suit” actually powerful?
The Casual Trend
According to the Remsen Report, the lawyer dress code has become much more casual in recent years. Less than 1/4 of attorneys always wear a suit. The majority, at 58%, wear a suit on some days but prefer business casual. 13% state that they only wear a suit when they absolutely have to. 71% believe that legal professionals have begun to dress more casually in the last five years, and 22% state that they haven’t noticed any change. Clearly lawyers are wearing suits less often, but should they be forgoing a suit and tie for business casual?
Does it Really Matter?
People do judge a book by its cover. It’s human nature. We all make judgments about others based on their appearance. Studies have shown that your appearance affects perceptions of trustworthiness, intelligence, authority, success, and how hireable you are. Given how important impressions and influence are in the legal profession, how you dress carries almost as much weight as what you say in the courtroom.
Harry Beckwith, the author of You Inc: Selling the Invisible, puts it simply. He says “Look as great as you are.” He goes on to state that your visual appearance overpowers your words, both spoken and written. According to Beckwith, how you look matters more than what you say. It seems to hold true, making dressing well one of the most important things you can do as a lawyer.
What is Dressing Well Anyway?
Well dressed doesn’t necessarily mean a suit and tie. When you consider what it means to be well dressed, there are a few key components. Your clothing should fit well. You should be comfortable and confident in them. You should develop a signature style that helps you stand out a bit, but don’t go overboard. You should also dress for the weather. It’s important to know which fabrics and styles work best for the temperature. If you’ve ever worn a wool suit in July, you know the value of choosing the right fabric.
Most importantly, dressing well is about dressing for the occasion. A big part of dressing well is considering other’s expectations. Too formal and you are overdressed. Too informal and you are underdressed. Dressing well is extremely important. Yes, lawyers should always be well dressed during work hours. An argument can be made that they should be well dressed at all times, even off the clock. However, the meaning of well-dressed changes with the situation.
In addition to choosing your clothes well, looking your best means taking proper care of them. They should be clean and pressed. They should be in good condition. If they are faded or worn, you shouldn’t be wearing them to work. Be sure to keep accessories clean as well. Clean and shined shoes can add to your overall appearance. A well-maintained briefcase gives an impression of pride and responsibility.
To Suit or Not to Suit
To suit or not to suit, that is the big question. Some law firms require wearing a suit every day. However, whether or not you should wear one, assuming you aren’t required to, depends on two things. The situation and your goal.
If you are going to be spending the day in the office and not meeting with clients, well dressed may mean a button-up shirt and khakis or even a polo shirt and jeans. If you are planning to meet with clients, you’ll need to consider your goal. Do you want to appear powerful and expensive? Do you want to convey trust and put the client at ease? A power suit is great for conveying your worth and providing an intimidation factor, but depending on your client it might make them less likely to open up to you.
When meeting with opposing counsel or anyone from the opposing side, you should wear a suit. It will allow you to appear confident, professional, and in control. When in the courtroom, you’ll want to wear a suit as well.
When you are meeting with clients or appearing in front of a jury, you should consider dressing down. Yes, I just said you should wear a suit to court. You should! However, you might want to leave your Rolex at home. Wear a nice suit, but not an Armani. The same goes for Louboutin shoes. People relate the best with those they perceive as similar. This also has a big impact on trust. It’s natural to trust those who are like us and distrust those who are too different. Building trust with the jury is essential to winning cases. The evidence presented is only as valuable as the amount of trust the jury places in it.
One of the challenges of dressing well as an attorney is developing your own memorable style. You don’t want to look just like everyone else, but you don’t want your clothing to be a distraction either. You want to look respectable and understated. Less is definitely more. However, you should also choose the clothes that you like. You should feel like it represents your personality and style. It can take some time to develop a signature look, but it is well worth it.
As an attorney, you are your own brand. Like any brand, appearance is a big part of success. Creating a signature style is part of developing your brand. Your reputation is another aspect of your brand. How you dress has a big impact on your reputation as well.
Tips Based on Career Stage and Gender
Your options for how to dress will also depend on your career stage. Lawyers in their first year of practice should err on the side of caution. This means wearing muted colors and wearing a suit most, if not all, of the time. You’ll also want to avoid red ties because they can be seen as cocky by your associates. Other than red, most colors are acceptable for ties as long as they are muted. Simple patterns are also a safe bet.
If you have been practicing for years you have more freedom. You can consider a brightly colored or red tie. Just be sure that it coordinates with your outfit and isn’t distracting. As an attorney, you are going for an understated look. Always.
Formal suits are recommended for women as junior attorneys as well. More experienced female attorneys can wear blouses and dresses. Low heels, pumps, and flats are good choices for footwear. Accessories including tights, necklaces, and scarves can be worn, especially by more experienced attorneys. Just remember that understated applies to both genders and includes accessories.