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We would like to believe, having earned a J.D. and started practicing law in courts and offices around the country, that we have earned the right to be evaluated solely on the merits of our advocacy and advice. The substance or clarity of our argument or written work product, however, is not all that influences how well we will be received by the people we want to influence most. We are used to being judged; but, like it or not, many of us are not used to being judged on our professional appearance.
We offer the following advice to our fellow young lawyers because, when you walk into a client meeting, a deposition, the courthouse, or even casual days at the office, your attire makes a statement about your competence, professionalism and, ultimately, may impact your future success in the legal world. It is not our intent to offend. Nor do we wish to reinforce outdated patriarchal ideas or state that there is only one acceptable dress code for attorneys. We simply seek to point out some appearance pitfalls to help remind young lawyers of the importance of dressing for success.
FOR THE MEN
• Remember to use collar stays. Ever wonder why the points of your collar continue to attack your face? You are not using collar stays -- metal or plastic strips that you insert into the pocket on the underside of your collar. They keep the points of your collar from flaring up and out of control. Every time you put on a shirt, you should insert them. Every time you send a shirt to the cleaners, you should remove them. If you forget to replace them, use a large paper clip to keep your neck from looking like it wants to fly away. Collar stays should be a part of your daily routine and are available for sale at most men's stores.
• Wear an undershirt. We know it is summer. We know it is hot, but some cliches are true -- never let them see you sweat. You are supposed to make your deponent sweat, not the other way around. You can prevent these uncomfortable moments by simply wearing an undershirt underneath your dress shirts. Avoid the appearance of lines under your shirt by steering clear of tank tops and V-neck undershirts; a crew neck undershirt creates the cleanest and most professional look.
• Suits for court appearances. A nice jacket and dress slacks will suffice for many corporate functions, but, as a young attorney, you should aim for more formality when in court. Dark suits, white/light colored (i.e., blue, grey) shirts and conservative ties are always safe bets. When preparing your attire for court, think about Barry Sanders in the end zone -- act like you have been there before and want to win.
FOR THE WOMEN
• Steer away from flashy heels and shorter-than-average skirts. Imagine teetering up to the lectern because your heels are too high or reaching for an exhibit while having to mind your hemline, all unnecessary distractions to you and to a judge and jury watching you struggle in the name of fashion rather than making your point.
Today's professional women are encouraged to wear feminine clothing and color choices, but you never want your attire to be a distraction from the merit of your work or your advocacy. Traditionally, very high heels and open-toe shoes are considered unprofessional, so play it safe with a pair of comfortable, classic pumps, with a dash of style in hardware or other embellishments. Typically, skirts should fall at or just above your knee. Although a well-cut pantsuit is generally acceptable, there are still many conservative individuals who believe skirts are more appropriate attire for women in court. So take the opportunity to set yourself apart from the Good Old Boys with a nice-looking pencil or a-line skirt suit.
• Get to a tailor. Of all things as lawyers, we want to look professional, crisp and no-nonsense. Women have a disadvantage in the tailored suit category. How many stores cater to the whims of cuffs/full break-half break/ and vents/double-vents for men while not even carrying a women's line? It is all about the fit and nothing looks better than a well-tailored suit or dress that looks perfect on you. Unfortunately, you're going to have to do the legwork to get there, so find yourself an excellent tailor to make those necessary hemline and sleeve adjustments and hang onto this special person for life.
• Stick with skin-toned or black pantyhose. You may have chosen sides in the generational rift that still exists on the question of whether pantyhose are necessary in the work place. Nevertheless, most of the judges, partners and clients you will interact with are 50 years old and up. You certainly will not offend anyone, no matter their age, if you wear conservative pantyhose. However, you may offend someone with bright-colored or patterned pantyhose.
• Use your iron/steamer. Nothing ruins a professional-looking outfit quicker than having deep wrinkles and creases in your garments. No one really likes to iron or steam their clothes, but taking the extra step to keep away wrinkles will improve your overall appearance and not ruin an otherwise professional appearance.
• Keep in mind that you do not need to restrict yourself to bland department stores or wherever our parents used to shop. You just need to be mindful of what is best to wear when you are representing yourself as a legal professional, versus what you may want to wear after work. When in doubt, go for the safest bet, as it would be an injustice if your wardrobe caused any disruption in the presentation of your case or negatively affected any member of the judiciary's perception of your competence.
At the end of the day, we are here to solve problems that lay people cannot solve on their own. What we wear should convey competence and confidence. A little personality can show through in what we wear, but not to the point where we catch people staring at what we are wearing rather than paying attention to what we are saying.
We must remain cognizant of the fact that first impressions are routinely informed and shaped by our appearance. Looking like a lawyer can be as important as sounding and behaving like a lawyer. Lack of judgment in our professional appearance may raise doubts about our judgment about more momentous things, like our analysis of the legal problem at hand and application of the law. Your presentation affects how judges, clients, partners and your peers receive you. Give yourself the best advantage by dressing to show that you respect the profession, respect your clients and respect yourself.
The Editorial Board of The Legal Intelligencer's Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.
To read more of interest to young lawyers from The Legal Intelligencer, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com and click on Young Lawyers under Firms & Lawyers.