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Several years into her professional career, Marie Wilson acknowledges that her wardrobe has lost its zest. Wilson, general counsel at Packeteer Inc., glances down at her sleek, navy blue Kasper suit, accented with white pearls, and says, “It’s elegant, but drab.” Elaine Lee, a patent counsel at Altera Corp., has a different sort of fashion problem. She works with a lot of engineers and rarely wears a suit to the office. When she does, communication falters. “Ah, you’re a lawyer, I don’t want to talk to you,” they tell her. Wilson and Lee were among about 30 other Silicon Valley in-house attorneys who recently � and rather eagerly � sought out advice from Anthea Tolomei, a fashion consultant. “The image is the main focus today,” announced Tolomei while fielding questions during a small fashion show in Palo Alto that was organized recently by the Bay Area chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. Alas, she added, the advent of today’s “business casual” style has thrown many women into sartorial confusion. Tolomei, of course, had some tips for her mostly female audience on how to spruce up their professional wardrobe. Some of it comes down to balancing the casual dress of the corporate culture with the crisp professionalism befitting an in-house attorney. Dressing according to body types, wearing colors that compliment skin tone, eyes and hair, and mixing and matching fabrics are just some of the basics. Tolomei also emphasizes concepts such as “low-fat dressing,” saying weight loss can be instantly achieved by selecting the right ensemble � clothes, for example, that draw attention away from the widest parts of a person’s body. She also suggested taking dress cues from supervisors “unless they’re clueless” themselves. For many in-house lawyers, one of the chief fashion objectives is how to achieve a look that is professional and carries an air of authority but that also says “talk to me.” That can be a challenge, lawyers say, particularly when they’re trying to talk to engineers and even CEOs who may be showing up to work in shorts or other very casual apparel. “There’s a fine line between looking enough like [the engineers] so they are comfortable enough to tell you things” and being authoritative, says Nola Mae McBain, an associate patent counsel at Xerox Corp. “If you don’t [look enough like them] you miss things.” McBain says she struggles to strike a balance between the relaxed style typical of her West Coast office and a much more traditional � and conservative � dress code that prevails in Xerox’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. “My GC wears a pinstripe suit and a tie with diagonal stripes,” says McBain. Describing her own wardrobe as “schizophrenic,” McBain pressed Tolomei for advice on how to integrate her Palo Alto wardrobe into her bi-coastal work life. Tolomei’s response? Go for a mixed-dressing approach. A sophisticated business suit, for example, can be transformed into something more casual, but still sufficiently businesslike, by replacing the suit pants with, say, a pair made out of denim. Wilson, who confessed to having a closet that contains “too much black, blue and white,” walked away from the fashion show feeling a bit refreshed. In particular, she was smiling over Tolomei’s “block dressing” concept of combining bold-colored tank tops with an equally bright-hued blazer. Says Wilson: “I feel like I have permission to go back to my hot-pink tops that I wore in my more casual days.” Petra Pasternak covers in-house news at The Recorder in San Francisco.

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