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So you’ve landed a summer associate position at a big law firm and you’ve been lucky enough to end up at one with a business casual dress policy for some or all of the summer. That will certainly help ease the sticky heat of steamy streets and sweltering subways. But how do you dress casually at a top law firm? How do you “dress down” while still keeping your image up? By using the same good taste you would use when choosing corporate dress, and by using neatness and cleanliness as your two main “dressing” criteria. THE RISE OF ‘CASUAL DRESS’ The gray flannel and pinstriped suits no longer rule the business fashion world. Comfortable dress at work started in the technology industry and has now permeated almost every business culture, from big blue chip corporations like IBM and Coca-Cola to premier Wall Street institutions such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and Goldman Sachs, from prominent professional service organizations including Booz-Allen and Deloitte Touche to, now, many top-tier law firms. In fact, more than 90 percent of all companies have some form of casual dress code in the workplace. One reason the business world has embraced casual dress so voraciously is because it has emerged as the second most popular employee perk behind flex time scheduling, according to CareerCentral.com. All things being equal, employees, in a survey by the Daily News Record, a leading fashion trade, stated they would choose a job with an organization with a casual dress policy over an offer from a suit-and-tie outfit. Casual dress is an inexpensive way to improve employee morale, and shows flexibility on the part of management toward meeting employee needs and a willingness to do things “the new way.” Casual clothing also can be somewhat of an equalizer, blurring the distinction between partners and associates. But casual clothing does not mean the work ethic is any more casual. A quick look at the rising stock prices of technology companies in recent years, most of which have casual dress codes, proves that comfortable clothes do not harm a firm’s performance. From a management point of view, the move to casual dressing says that results, not appearances, are what count. AVOIDING THE LAND MINES Figuring out just how casual “business casual” is can be a treacherous minefield because it opens up a world of choices. One person’s interpretation of the word “casual” may vary drastically from another’s, from merely taking off a suit jacket to wearing sneakers or shorts. Casual dress does not mean that anything goes. Yes, you have more fashion choices than ever before, but the choices are not limitless. Do not make the mistake of assuming that there are no rules. Business casual enables you to be more comfortable on the job, but your casual clothes still have to fit your law firm’s image. It’s actually not that hard to identify the basic dos and don’ts of casual dressing at work. The first “do” is to ask — before you start work, if possible — what the firm’s dress guidelines are, and if it has a formal dress code policy. If it does, by all means get a copy and read it. The most important thing to remember about dressing casually at work is that the firm’s image comes before your image. The second “do” of dressing casually is to observe what other people in your firm are wearing, particularly those senior to you. Notice the different partners’ styles of clothing. Gauging your appearance by what other summer associates are wearing may not be the best course of action, unless they have been with the firm for a while. The last thing you want to do is copy the male summer associate who shows up wearing a T-shirt, or the female summer associate who comes to the office wearing a halter top. For the most part, business casual guidelines are common sense. Whatever you wear should be clean and neat. If you feel unsure, you can’t do any harm by sticking to the more conservative end of the spectrum. And it’s a pretty safe bet to say that whatever you wear to the beach on Saturday or the park Sunday afternoon should stay home Monday morning when you head off to work. TYPICAL DRESS GUIDELINES So how is business casual defined? For men, it generally means: � open-collared, banded-collar or knit polo-style shirts (all shirts must have a collar); twill or oxford button-downs, � Dockers-type slacks, � sport coat, vest or sweater, and � coordinating accessories. For women, business casual generally means: � appropriate dresses, � pants suits or slacks, � acceptable-length skirts, and � casual blouses or knit tops. Some firms specify that hosiery must be worn at all times. On the other hand, it may be easier to pick your clothes by knowing what is NOT appropriate. Overall, business casual clothing should not be brief, form-fitting or revealing and does not include: � jeans of any color or description or any denim apparel; � shorts, culottes, leggings, stirrup pants, stretch pants, micro-miniskirts or overalls; � T-shirts, tank, halter or midriff tops; � bareback clothing; � exercise or sports apparel; � sneakers of any kind, color or fabric; � flip-flops or other beach-style sandals, or hiking boots; or � big, flashy logos (small, discrete logos are acceptable, like the Izod alligator or the Ralph Lauren Polo horse). Jewelry should be simple and kept to a minimum. MATCHING A CLIENT’S CULTURE While business casual may be the dress code of the office workday, there are still several situations that are held sacrosanct — and subject to their own dress code. Most law firms dictate that business clothing be worn for certain client meetings, court appearances and special events such as closing dinners. While attorneys should always dress to the standards of their clients, prospective clients or business contacts, regardless of where that contact takes place, there is one exception — and that is whether or not the client also endorses a business casual dress code. It is common practice these days to check with clients before a meeting to ascertain their style of dress. If they still wear suits, you should wear a suit. But if they spend all their working hours in Dockers and polo shirts or Liz Claiborne skirts and jersey tops, showing up in a three-piece suit or full-dress regalia on a 90-degree summer day could come across as a glaring error. However, some clients do not want lawyers in short-sleeved sport shirts; they want someone who projects the image of knowing the law. If your client says casual dress, it’s a good idea to check with your supervising attorney before the meeting anyway. AT A MOMENT’S NOTICE The majority of law firms will require that a suit be kept on hand in the office to facilitate a quick change into business attire for unanticipated client meetings or court appearances. But remember, this means more than just a suit. Sorry will be the individual who has a three-piecer on hand but only a golf shirt to wear underneath and suede Hush Puppies for the feet. Save yourself the mad dash to Macy’s by also keeping on hand a coordinating shirt and tie or blouse to go with the suit, and appropriate shoes and hosiery. NEED HELP? If you feel like you need more guidance to successfully navigate the white waters of casual dressing at work, you can either contact the human resources department at your law firm or turn to some of the better clothing brands and stores. Casual wear clothing companies and department stores are paying close attention to the “dress down” trend, and many offer personal advising and shopping services. Levi Strauss, for example, recently launched Slates.com, a free, personalized Internet-style advisor created to help men put together a casual, business-appropriate wardrobe customized to their physical characteristics and taste. Many clothing stores — e.g., Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom’s — also offer personal shopping services and, as casual dress has taken hold across corporate America, these stores’ salespeople have become adept at answering the popular question, “What can I wear?” The success of any law firm’s business casual policy rests with the good judgment of each individual. The overriding rule is that business casual attire should at all times reflect professionalism and good taste. Let common sense and good taste be your guide this summer, and you’ll sail through, comfortably and in style. Virginia L. Quinn is manager of legal recruitment at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft

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