You got your JD, you passed the Bar, you landed a job—surely you can put a professional wardrobe together, right? It should be simple, but dressing for work as a female lawyer is a complex proposition.
For men, it’s more straightforward: wear a suit. For women, the standards for professional dress are more nuanced and ever-evolving. Still, it’s important to hit the ground running. After all, it only takes seven seconds to make a first impression. From your first job interview to your first jury selection—and every jury selection thereafter—first impressions are crucial.
For a lawyer, there are two main criteria to keep in mind when dressing for work. First, do you feel comfortable and confident? Second, does your attire send a message of respect for the court, your client, your colleagues, and yourself? Whether you are in the courtroom or behind your desk, your clothing must check both of these boxes.
Comfort is key because, once you are dressed for the day, you shouldn’t have to worry about how your clothes fit, feel or appear. If your outfit is distracting to you or others, then you’re doing yourself and your client a disservice. When you dress professionally and with purpose, then your clients, your supervisors, judges, and jurors are more likely to respect you as a professional and focus on your message and your work. Lawyers, especially newly licensed lawyers, must be reminded that their highest responsibility is to communicate their client’s story. Professional attire allows your audience to focus on your message instead of your outfit.
As a new lawyer, it’s important to remember that it takes time to build a great work wardrobe. Your closet will evolve along with your career, but now is the time to build a solid foundation. In your first few years on the job, you can’t afford to waste time deliberating in front of the closet each morning. A streamlined wardrobe will relieve stress and allow you to focus on what really matters: your work.
So, how do you build a wardrobe that balances comfort with professionalism? Create a uniform. It may sound rigid, but it doesn’t have to be. A uniform is simply a way of systemizing your personal style by identifying the colors, silhouettes and pieces that look good on you and best serve your purpose at work.
To begin, focus on creating ten go-to outfits. A solid two-week rotation will form the base of your work wardrobe, and from there, you can mix in accessories to keep your look fresh. When you’re building your ten-outfit foundation, focus on neutral colors (black, navy, ivory, camel, olive, burgundy) and classic silhouettes (pencil or A-line skirts, tailored pants, structured blazers, collared shirts). Once you get comfortable at work, you can observe those around you to ascertain whether brighter colors or prints are acceptable. But when in doubt, err on the side of formality and neutrality.
When it comes to workwear, quality is key. Not all suiting is created equal. If you’re working with a limited budget, it may be tempting to opt for fast-fashion options, but in the long run, you’ll get more value by buying higher quality items that will last longer. While fast-fashion can feel like a bargain in the moment, if your new blazer starts to fall apart after three wears, it’s not money well-spent.
When assessing quality, get granular. Are the hems and cuffs straight? Are the stitches sturdy? Is there any buckling along the seams or zipper? Is the lining well-secured and hidden? A quality garment will look and feel flawless from every angle.
With professional attire, fit is everything. As a lawyer, your clothes should appear as if they were made for you—not too tight, not too loose. When you try them on, move around as you would throughout your day. Stand, sit, walk, pretend to hail a taxi. Your clothing should easily accommodate the movements you tend to make at work. If you’re between sizes in a specific item, opt for the larger size and have it tailored. Whether you’re hemming a pair of pants or taking in a dress, a great tailor can make all the difference.
In building your wardrobe, don’t underestimate the importance of shoes. Whether you prefer flats or heels, find a few pairs that are versatile and comfortable. You must be able to walk with conviction and feel at ease all day. If you’re teetering at any point, your shoes are too high; opt for a lower heel height. When you find your go-to shoes, you’ll likely wear them again and again. There’s nothing wrong with that, but make sure you take care of them. When they start to scuff or the heels get worn down, take them to be repaired and polished. They should always look new, even if you’ve relied on them for years.
When it comes to building an empowering work wardrobe, there is no right or wrong answer. And it’s not about spending tons of money or having endless options—it’s about dressing with intention. Your outfit sets the tone for your day and enables you to do your best work, in and out of court. It goes without saying that female lawyers face many challenges, but by dressing with professionalism and confidence, they can control the conversation.