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Last fall, when New York magazine ran a glossy photo of three lawyers from the New York office of Miami’s Greenberg Traurig in its issue on “power dressing,” managing partner Richard Rosenbaum appeared in a dark, custom-tailored suit and red tie. But the two associates were all business casual, swathed head to toe in Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. The selection of Greenberg lent the firm a sort of law-office-fashion street cred. “It’s a new era of flexibility and comfort,” the firm seemed to be saying. “And we get it.” So weeks later, when Greenberg became the first firm in the city to repeal its business-casual-all-the-time dress policy, it was hard not to wonder if Manhattan law offices would soon be swarming again with pinstripes and pearls. But in the ensuing weeks, not a single firm followed Greenberg’s lead. At press time Gap khakis and Ann Taylor sweater sets still passed muster in the halls of most of New York’s power firms. Why haven’t more firms hiked up the formality? After all, Greenberg’s decision makers had sensible reasons for turning back the clock. According to Rosenbaum, the move was prompted by the firm’s clients, several of whom had explicitly asked when the firm was “going back” to suits and stockings. The nudging didn’t surprise Rosenbaum. “We’re living in a serious time,” he says, referring to the threat of terrorism, the lethargic economy, and the then impending war. “We need to give off an impression that we’re taking our clients and their problems very seriously.” Executive committees at other New York firms recognize that somber times call for a look that’s a little more “Six Feet Under” than “Will & Grace.” “But the move seems to be happening on its own,” says John MacKerron, the partner in charge of San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s New York office. “It’s not something we feel that we have to legislate.” It’s not that lawyers are voluntarily carting out their suits. But they’re finally starting to pay heed to the “business” element of business casual. Men are reporting to work in jackets and spiffy shoes. And women have mostly mastered a look that’s both comfortable and tasteful. Initially, the notion of full-time casual dress — which arrived at New York firms some four years ago — flummoxed a lot of people, especially men. “The men really didn’t know what was appropriate, so they all just went to The Gap and bought up a bunch of blue button-down shirts and khaki pants,” says a former associate at a large New York firm. That outfit might have been comfortable, but, ironically, it just replaced one type of uniformity with another. “All of the sudden, all the men looked like they worked at Blockbuster Video,” reports the associate, now an in-house lawyer at a major investment bank. There was, of course, some latitude. But nobody fully understood how much. And men who strayed from the new chambray-and-khaki government issue generally erred on the side of the Uber-casual, which was, after all, a dot-com era badge of hipness and entitlement. “Early on, it was a little bit of a battle,” says Dennis Orr, a litigation partner in the New York office of Chicago’s Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. “We had a few younger attorneys show up in faded jeans and bowling shirts.” The casual regime brought growing pains for women, too. At the time of the change, the dress rules for women were already more fluid than they were for men: Sleeveless blouses, sweater sets and pants had become accepted variations on the old power-suit look. So the move to business casual was in many ways less disruptive to women’s wardrobes than it was to men’s. Still, there were ambiguities. “A few years ago, women [at the firm] definitely wore some skirts that were too short and tops that were too tight,” admits a fifth-year female associate at the New York office of a large Chicago firm. “They just don’t seem to wear that stuff now. Women know better.” Associates throughout the city are saying the same thing, that unstated rules for business casual have firmed up. And the look has cleaned up. “The look is now a little more Banana Republic than The Gap,” says a sixth-year male associate at the New York branch of another big midwestern firm. “These days, I’m putting more starch in my shirts, and making sure there’s a little shine in my shoes.” Anything, it seems, to keep the firm brass from bringing back ties and stockings, which, aside from being uncomfortable, don’t often mesh with a young lawyer’s after-work plans in Soho or the East Village. One male associate says he’d give up $15,000 in salary to stay casual. And the fifth-year female associate says that a return to suits would make her quit the firm. “Unless they gave us a $5,000 stipend for new clothes,” she says. “And that’s not just a fashion demand. People gain weight at these jobs!”

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