Ask the Experts
Law Firm Dress Code Too Much Trouble?
Question: With the warm weather, the annual “what to wear” debate is underway at our firm — and it’s probably time to update and enforce a dress code policy. Do most law firms have a dress code? Should we have one? Why or why not?
Maryann Arsenault: Policies are more than just “red tape.” From a firm management perspective, they are some of the most important tools in our kits. Our vacation policy, for example, explains in writing how vacation days are accrued. People then understand how the days are calculated and can rely on equal and fair treatment. In the vacation day policy example, it’s simple math.
When it comes to the dress code, nothing is as simple as it seems. At Todd & Weld, we wear business attire Monday through Thursday and casual dress on Friday. Jeans are allowed on Fridays, which nearly everyone enjoys. Over time, we’ve developed an understanding about appropriate attire during the winter months. When summer approaches, it’s a different matter entirely, and dress issues require reminders, discussion and even some debate on an annual basis.
- What is the difference between capris and crops?
- What about crop tops?
- How much skin is too much skin?
- Shorts worn with a matching jacket are still shorts, true or false?
- And perhaps the biggest question of all, what exactly is a flip-flop? Is a “blingy” flip-flop still a flip-flop?
We try to address the dress code with good humor, usually sending out a poem before summer begins to remind everyone of our policy. We don’t have an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts, but we do explain that anything too short, too tight or too revealing is not acceptable. Individuals may wear capris, crops and flip-flops on Fridays only. The dress code policy may not be as clear as our other policies, and opinions about “too this” or “too that” can vary greatly person by person. Nonetheless, we believe it is useful to have a basic policy that sets the bar at a place most individuals understand. We trust our people to use good judgment. When someone misses the mark, a brief conversation usually clears it up.
Maryann Arsenault is Executive Director of Todd & Weld LLP. She has 20 years’ experience in law firm management, previously serving as executive director of an intellectual property boutique, COO of a 145-lawyer Boston firm, and office administrator for the Boston office of a 350-lawyer national firm.
Bill Spohrer: Having a dress code policy is acceptable and in most cases a good idea. There are a few things that should be considered when crafting your policy, and your employment lawyer should review and approve the policy before it is implemented.
Here are a few important questions to consider before you start.
- What is your bona fide business reason for the policy?
- Could the policy, whether intentional or not, be discriminatory?
- If the policy represents a significant change, how might current employees react to the new policy?
Do you have a bona fide business reason? Your need for a dress code may be tied to the image that your firm is trying to present. Clients are sometimes influenced by their lawyer’s appearance. For instance, if you represent business clients they may expect their lawyer to wear formal business attire, such as coat and tie with conventional dress shoes for men. Consider your appearance from the client’s point of view.
Could the policy be discriminatory? Does your policy infringe, by design or enforcement, upon an employee’s reasonable expression of their religion? For example, you may have an employee whose religious beliefs require that he wear facial hair. What if facial hair is prohibited by your proposed policy?
Does the policy represent a significant change to the status quo? For instance, perhaps your current clothing policy allows employees to wear corporate casual clothing, and your now want individuals to begin wearing more dressy business attire. Your employees may see the policy as senseless and unfair, and they may passively protest it by reducing their productivity.
Lastly, in human resources management the rule is document, document, document. In the case of the implementation of a new office policy, the rule is to always discuss potential compliance issues with your employment lawyer before discussing it with your employees and implementing the change.
Include the employees in the decision-making process and communicate clearly your reasons for wanting the change.
Bill Spohrer has been a law firm administrator for the past 23 years and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). He teaches several sections of the Human Resources Certification Institute workshop and is an active member in SHRM.
Dorothea Downey: There is no right or wrong answer regarding office dress codes. No question, there is a much more relaxed attitude these days about what to wear in the workplace, but you have to know your firm culture. Who are your clients? Where is your office located? Do attorneys and paralegals spend a lot of time in court? Does the firm have a lot of clients or visitors to the office?
If most of your employees and staff work from home, there is very little reason to have a dress code. However, if you have frequent visits from your clients and they arrive in suits, chances are they expect to see their attorney wearing one also.
One firm where I worked for many years expected the male attorneys to wear suits with a dress shirt and tie; woman were also expected to wear suits, modest dresses or dress slacks with a jacket. After repeated requests from the staff, the partners allowed for a more relaxed dress code from Memorial Day to Labor Day, calling for “dressy casual.”
During the summer months, if the firm was expecting clients in the office, an email would be sent to everyone the day before asking everyone to wear their normal business attire on the day of the visit.
Whether you have a strict or casual dress code in your office, the important thing to remember is that everyone interacting with clients should be viewed as a representative of the firm, so their appearance is important.
Dorothea Downey is head of operations at GTC Law Group. She has been a law office administrator for 30 years and a member of ALA since 2001 and received her CLM in 2008.
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