In one of my favorite childhood books, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupry, our young hero learns that VIPs will only listen to him if he’s dressed in fancy threads.
The same is true for lawyers. Clients, judges and juries are less apt to buy into our advice or believe the message we’re selling if we’re not dressed appropriately. The old phrase “clothes make the man” could easily be “clothes make the lawyer.”
There is no standard lawyer uniform, although in general lawyers are expected to look respectable, polished and clean cut–no loud, tacky colors or patterns.
But what is appropriate dress for the in-house lawyer? In large legal departments the typical uniform is the “shark” suit: solid blues or grays worn with a starched white shirt and conservative tie. Lawyers in large departments tend to look similar to one another but distinct from their business colleagues. In small departments, however, it can benefit the lawyers to blend in more with the business crowd.
Upon exiting law school, I tried to emulate the successful attorneys I saw growing up in Manhattan. As a result, my closet contained three Brooks Brothers suits, five white shirts, wing tips and three ties in the same paisley pattern. My wardrobe was conservative, serious and professional–and boring.
As I struggled to begin my own entertainment firm, my hip-hop clients gave me quite a bit of flak for my buttoned-up attire. Exposure to other entertainment lawyers, who wore ponytails, mismatched suits and gold chains in place of ties, made me realize I could lighten up a bit. So I shed my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and added some variety to my tie collection.
I had several in-house jobs thereafter and altered my wardrobe for each one according to the fashion trends of my corporate colleagues. As general counsel of a book publisher, for example, I sprung for sorbet-colored shirts, jazzy “power ties” and sportier suits. In short, I became more colorful and creative-looking while maintaining a lawyerly appearance.
When I landed a gig at a World Financial Center investment bank, I wore dark Valentino silks and gold-buckled suspenders for additional flair. I even dipped into my grandfather’s collection of bejeweled tie clips and gold cuff links.
But when I became in-house counsel of a Silicon Valley technology company, such flashiness fell to the wayside. Upon meeting my new boss in my best East Coast power-lawyer getup, he cautioned, “You can’t go into the office looking like that. They’ll eat you alive.” So I spent the next few years wearing tan pants, short-sleeved button-down shirts and brown shoes–and I got along famously with my new techie colleagues.
Conforming my wardrobe to each particular corporate arena has undoubtedly helped me better relate to my business colleagues. It may sound silly, but fashion choices can signal you as either a corporate team player or a clueless outsider. One attorney I knew prided himself on wearing three-piece suits, a bow tie and a pocket watch. While I found his outfits nostalgic, business folks perceived him as being out of touch.
So follow the advice of fashion legend Coco Chanel, who said, “Dress shabby they notice the dress; dress impeccably they notice the woman.” Small department counsel should dress impeccably so that a bad wardrobe doesn’t overshadow their legal talent.
The good news is that small department counsel aren’t beholden to a large department uniform; we have the unique opportunity to create our own style while simultaneously fitting in.