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“As many of you know, I was the original (and most vocal) proponent of the firm’s business-casual policy … I am beginning to think that I made a mistake.” So began the attention-grabbing message from Constance A. Fratianni to employees of Shearman & Sterling around the world, sent March 26 via e-mail. A copy of the post from Fratianni, the firm’s personnel partner, was obtained by the New York Law Journal. “Too many of you have forgotten that the policy is business-casual, not grunge-wear, sports-wear or evening attire, i.e. cocktail dresses,” wrote Fratianni. “There has been a significant increase in the number of people (myself included) who think that we should go back to more traditional office attire.” SECOND THOUGHTS Fratianni is not alone. Law firms around the city — from partners to associates to managers — seem to be having second thoughts about year-round casual attire. Such reconsideration seems in tandem with a trend in the corporate world — read: clients — toward the formal business environment of the past. The brokerage firm Lehman Brothers, for example, recently re-declared itself business-formal. At most law firms, the so-called casual Friday habit begat casual summer, which begat the year-round policy. “But once people went casual all the time, they got sloppy about it,” said Amianna Stovall, 32, a senior litigation associate at Dreier & Baritz. “You began to see things that were really not appropriate. “When you get into dress-down mode, everybody’s got a different idea. Then there are body types,” said Stovall, a graduate of New York Law School. “Some bodies you don’t want to see.” To date, no major law firm has publicly announced a reversal in an existing business-casual policy, though rumors abound. So do fair warnings, as in Fratianni’s memo: “We are not ready to give up on our business-casual policy — yet,” Fratianni wrote. “Although most people in the firm dress appropriately, the carelessness of a few will cause us to reconsider the policy.” Merrill B. Stone, managing partner at Kelly Drye & Warren, said associates and others at his firm “use their common sense and — knock on wood — we’ve had very few problems.” So few that he sees no reason to depart from a policy memo of two years ago that banned dungarees and sneakers and “a few other obvious no-nos.” But like everybody else, Stone senses change in the air. He reports increased sightings of young lawyers in what he calls “full business regalia.” As a for instance, he said, Stone recently bumped into a former Kelly Drye associate on a commuter train. The young man’s dress habit at Kelly Drye had been decidedly casual. “So now there he was in a suit and tie,” said Stone. “So I asked him about the change, and he said, ‘Well, I just feel more comfortable.’” West Coast law firms began the business-casual approach, inspired by the “geek chic” look of suit-less, tie-less and sometimes shoe-less executives of the formerly intriguing Internet industry. The casual trend spread quickly across the fruited plain. Erick Hertz, president of the Fashion Association, a trade group representing some 800 American clothing retailers, was recently quoted in the Observer of London as saying, “I do not think people necessarily want to look like dot-commers anymore. They want to look like capable business people.” A poll conducted only last year by Virginia-based Human Resource Management found that 86 per cent of U.S. professional offices allowed some form of casual dress. But in that very poll, a spokesman for Lehman Brothers claimed the company had no intention of returning to a formal dress standard. Which would seem to prove the rule that fashion changes rather quickly. FIRST TO ADOPT Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft was the first New York firm to adopt an everyday business-casual dress policy. “If we were seeing clients or in court, we dressed in proper business attire,” said Paula Zirinsky, director of public relations at Cadwalader. “Casual was in the office. Casual dress is wonderful, particularly when you’re working the long hours.” Lately, though, Zirinsky has noticed that casual attire is getting a bit spiffier. More women are wearing jackets or suits, and the men are increasingly seen in blazers. As she put it, “It’s getting a little more business-casual than casual-business.” Response from freshly warned associates at Shearman, said Fratianni, has been “mostly positive, and you’d be surprised how many people have told me things like, ‘It’s about time’ and ‘I’m glad somebody spoke up’ and ‘Why not just do casual Friday in the summer.’ “The memo was my friendly way of saying, Remember — you’re coming to work. We represent the Red Sox, but we’re not about red socks.” Although Stovall’s firm has a casual policy, she said, “I wouldn’t mind suiting up all the time. As a young attorney, especially as a woman, you’re looked at in a lot of ways, including the way you dress. When you’re trying to be authoritative, it’s hard to present yourself as carrying any weight if you’re dressed like you’re going to the beach.” At the opposite end of the opinion spectrum is Karyn E. Corlett, 30, a fifth-year associate in the real estate department at Kelly Drye. “If an unintelligent remark comes out of your mouth, it doesn’t help if you’re wearing a suit,” said Corlett, a New York Law School graduate. “When I have a meeting, especially with J.P. Morgan or Morgan Stanley, I definitely dress up. But I don’t see any overall trend toward dressing up. “I definitely feel more relaxed when I’m not in an itchy suit and stockings — especially in summer. And it’s nice to have comfortable shoes on at the end of a long day.” Just in case, Corlett said she keeps a dressy blazer stashed in a desk drawer. “It’s beige, it goes with anything I’m wearing.” Poor men, she said. “It’s harder to draw the line. They have suits, or they have khakis. Women have a lot more versatility.” Ann Marie Sabath, president and founder of At Ease Inc., a Cincinnati-based consulting company used by several Manhattan law firms to instruct young associates on matters of dress and etiquette, offers a rule of thumb for business-casual: “When you’re at the office, dress according to the person you want to be on your team. Look at the individuals three, four and five years ahead of you. Emulate them. Outside the office, dress according to the position you want in the firm, not the one you have. Truly, the in-house versus external attire should not be much different. “The way you dress tells people how serious you are about business, and your dress is a reflection of the service you represent.” Copying one’s peers is not a good idea, according to Sabath, who reports a definite trend toward “business-ready” attire as she conducts seminars for business and law firms from coast to coast. “Too many young people assume that because Mary showed up wearing a top revealing a little too much and nobody’s said anything that it’s okay. And too many young people think ‘permanent press’ means you don’t have to iron.”

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