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Stylish business clothing for businessman.

PHOTO: margostock/iStockphoto.com

It likely comes as no surprise that the popularity of the all-white leather sneaker has not yet caught on at the nation’s white-shoe law firms. But lawyers at elite firms nevertheless are embracing trendier business-casual wear as the new workday norm and updating their denim choices for those even more relaxed Fridays.

The move to more informal attire at top law firms is in keeping with their previously buttoned-up brethren at JP Morgan, and is more aligned with the übercasual dress codes at some of their tech-focused clients.

At Milbank Tweed, Hadley & McCoy, for example, attorneys are making bolder fashion statements Monday through Thursday, with several male lawyers opting for bright blue slacks amid the sea of staid khakis and grandpa-gray pants.

How bright blue? “Really blue,” said Daniel Perry, a firm partner and head of its associate life committee. “Pick up an issue of GQ.” Milbank lawyers also are making more fashionable denim choices for Fridays, he said.

R Nixon Peabody’s Staci Riordan

Nixon Peabody partner and fashion practice leader Staci Riordan is tapping into her trendier side. “To me it’s one of the best things about being a partner,” she said. “I wear more fun things because I wasn’t comfortable before.”

On occasion she’s even worn an off-the-shoulder blouse, and she said some of her fellow partners slip into jeans on days other than Friday.

Whether it’s business casual or a jeans day, attorneys still want to feel comfortable that what they’re wearing meets their firm’s expectations, so they’re keeping what they pair on top with their jeans or slacks fairly conservative. Associates especially err on the safe side, Riordan said: “When you’re working so many hours, the last thing you want to do is wear the wrong thing.”

Even so, eighth-year Mayer Brown associate Gina Del Tatto now wears her Theory suits only to court or meetings with the government. Otherwise, she brings in pops of color with fitted blazers, either from Zara or a cream one she recently splurged on from Iro, and inserts individuality through accessories such as a scarf necklace by Mignonne Gavigan.

For jeans Fridays, Del Tatto sometimes wears a button-down with a strawberry pattern but always takes care to ensure that no one “would ever question what I’m wearing.” Looking put together and presentable is paramount, she said.

Partner Douglas Hand at New York boutique law firm Hand Baldachin & Amburgey still thinks that a lawyer can rarely go wrong with a well-tailored suit, but his firm’s clients include cutting-edge clothing brands, so they have a little more fun with fashion than many firms. The firm’s Instagram account includes postings of an employee “Look of the Week,” recently featuring a man in a Rag & Bone striped vest and a woman sporting a Giambattista Valli sweater and black Sperry shoes. After prior failures to mandate a detailed dress code, Hand said he’s distilled his firm’s policy down to four words: Look capable and elegant.

The mellowing of law firm dress codes in general stems from casual Fridays, which came about in a variety of ways. Weil, Gotshal, & Manges lawyers earn the privilege of donning denim by donating a minimum of $5 to a rotating selection of beneficiaries, and Mayer Brown’s New York office joined the trend when lawyers were packing up their legal pads to move office buildings last year. Jeans are old hat at some firms—Strasburger & Price in Dallas has been Friday denim-friendly for more than a decade, though they’re paired with cowboy boots less frequently than you might expect for a Texas-based firm, partner Jadd Masso said.

Milbank’s New York office began allowing jeans on Fridays just before summer associates arrived in 2014, Perry said. The firm’s Los Angeles office was Friday jeans-friendly several years before, and adopting the policy in New York was an “easy sell internally to the executive committee and to our partners,” he said.

The only hiccup with the new policy was some extremely casual shoe choices—think lawyers in flip-flops. Once the need for more formal foot attire was made clear, it’s been a smooth ride, Perry said.

If a client meeting is on the schedule, no matter the day of the week, lawyers still dress specifically for it. Most will wear a suit for a first meeting and deviate later only to the extent it complements the client’s way of dressing.

“I’m going to [see] a banking client, so I’m dressed like a lawyer today” in a black midcalf-length skirt, tucked-in shirt and a jacket at the ready, said Los Angeles-based Winston & Strawn labor and employment partner Monique Ngo-Bonnici. “When I go to a tech startup, I’ll wear jeans and a nice shirt, or some sort of more informal-type dress.”

The idea behind dressing more casually for a highly casual client office, she said, is to avoid being perceived as “some lawyer who is going to be a naysayer to everything.”

Dina Hoffer, a sixth-year associate at Hughes Hubbard & Reed in New York, keeps it business casual—and simple—by adopting a general uniform. She opts for black J. Crew pants, Everlane silk blouses in neutral colors and black leather mules. “It’s a way to reduce my cognitive load,” Hoffer said, adding that her firm still tends to be on the dressier side of business casual, and that they don’t do jeans. Like many female associates, she keeps a collection of heels in her desk drawer for client meetings or unexpected trips to court.

Like Del Tatto, she’s considering abandoning her years-old Theory skirts and jackets for court appearances and investing in some custom-made suits by Brooklyn-based Bindle & Keep. She said that the recent round of associate raises at her firm will help foot the bill.

Erin Geiger Smith is a freelance writer in New York. 

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