Does your law office have a dress code?
Is it informal or written down? Do you have hemline inspectors and open-toed sandals supervisors? Are body piercings and visible tattoos allowed?
I am old enough to remember a time before Casual Friday. Back then we wrote our writs on stone tablets using crude hacking tools. Not true. We used IBM Selectric typewriters and carbon paper.
In those days I was told to dress professionally when appearing in public. Always. Who knows who might be watching?
Though now I question that advice. What kind of freak wears business attire to the Piggly Wiggly to purchase toilet paper and asparagus? Ward Cleaver might mow his lawn in a necktie and June might fix dinner in high heels and pearls, but no well-balanced individual would think of doing so.
Which brings us back to the law office. Blawger Otto Sorts, author of Attorney at Work, recently had this to say on the subject:
Like most firms, mine has undergone many battles over attire through the years. In the ’60s it was long hair on lawyers (all men, of course). How far past the collar was acceptable? What about that new associate’s ponytail?
[T]hen there was the great hem-line battle of the ’70s. We rapidly rose above the old Catholic school rule that the hem must touch the floor while kneeling, and the issue has risen and fallen with fashion over time. I forget when the first bare midriffs, tattoos and piercings showed up, but we had the usual battles and complaints on all sides of the issue.
Generally, it is the younger crowd that brings in the newer, edgier fashions, while it is usually the older, more conservative people (mostly men) who set the rules in law firms. So, conflicts arise. It is not easy to define what is acceptable, though everyone agrees that we should look “professional.” The clients, not to mention the judges and juries, want to feel reassured by your presence, not distracted by your “look.”
It is the firm leadership that sets the tone for what is appropriate. And that leadership isn’t necessarily in the hands of that group of old guys with the corner offices, but rather with the individuals throughout the firm who are looked to for their opinion and example. And, yes, example is a major issue. It is the responsibility of the more-senior people in the office to set the tone for behavior.
Presentation matters. Everyone agrees on that. But what makes a good presentation, and when should it be required? Only in court? Only when clients are around?
I have one lawyer friend who makes a point of wearing business casual attire – or even full-on casual – in all client interviews. He believes it removes barriers and puts people at ease.
Another friend has the opposite view. Formal dress – a uniform, if you will – makes a statement about leadership and gravitas.
What about you? Does your office have a dress code? Are violators summarily shot, or simply sent home to change?
Jay Reeves is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Once upon a time he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He once hung out with Wolfman Jack. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.