a curmudgeon's perspective

Dress for Excess

By | Oct.23.12 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Culture, People Management, Professionalism

The other day, Oriella, one of the young legal secretaries, wore these sandal-type shoes with long leather straps wrapping up to mid-calf. I thought they looked pretty, and a little sexy, and remarked on them to one of the older partners. His response was, “Well, I guess it’s time to revisit the old dress code again.” I shuddered at the thought.

Like most firms, mine has undergone many battles over attire through the years. In the ’60s it was long hair on lawyers (all men, of course). How far past the collar was acceptable? What about that new associate’s ponytail? We blew past the no-bra trend quickly. But then there was the great hem-line battle of the ’70s. We rapidly rose above the old Catholic school rule that the hem must touch the floor while kneeling, and the issue has risen and fallen with fashion over time. I forget when the first bare midriffs, tattoos and piercings showed up, but we had the usual battles and complaints on all sides of the issue. (The issues collided, of course, when gender bias was raised as an issue and the “Tats for Tits” movement formed.) The arguments raised many sore points, some of which still rankle.


I have a particularly deep-seated dislike for flip-flops worn anywhere but the locker room, beach or pool. But now it seems everyone wants to wear them on airplanes. However, in the office, I still do not know the difference between sandals, jellies or open-toed pumps. How do we define appropriate footwear? One partner, a very fashionable dresser, noted that flip-flops were rubber and cost a couple of bucks at Target. Her sandals were polished leather, only available at very ritzy stores and quite expensive. I asked if we should require that everyone keep the price tag on their shoes so we could know what was acceptable. She was not amused.

So how do we define appropriate attire? My middle-aged secretary can get away with showing some cleavage  in her silk blouse, but on that 20-something at the front desk? It is a definite distraction to the associates. Similarly, not all jeans are the same. And what works in New York City may not work in Los Angeles—and heaven forbid you bring L.A. style to Tulsa or Birmingham.

Generally, it is the younger crowd that brings in the newer, edgier fashions, while it is usually the older, more conservative people (mostly men) who set the rules in law firms. So, conflicts arise. It is not easy to define what is acceptable, though everyone agrees that we should look “professional.” The clients, not to mention the judges and juries, want to feel reassured by your presence, not distracted by your “look.”

Setting the Tone

It is the firm leadership that sets the tone for what is appropriate. And that leadership isn’t necessarily in the hands of that group of old guys with the corner offices, but rather with the individuals throughout the firm who are looked to for their opinion and example. And, yes, example is a major issue. It is the responsibility of the more-senior people in the office to set the tone for behavior. We often tolerate the quirks of the more powerful, but in doing so, undermine our own values.

A few Sundays ago in the office, I noticed a legal secretary wearing nice slacks and a comfortable blouse toiling away on a crucial matter. Nearby, a paralegal was dressed similarly—comfortable but nice. Then a partner showed up unshaven, in a dirty T-shirt, ragged shorts and very old sneakers. There were no clients, judges or juries around. Who would care?

He was really pissed off when I sent him home to change.

Otto Sorts has been reading the law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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