Rule for everyone everywhere: Wear what you want.

People have been chiming in lately about how women lawyers should dress, and how to talk about how women lawyers dress, which has been fascinating and irritating.

In case you missed it, Loyola Law School drew criticism for advising female law students to skip cleavage and stilettos at their externships (memo excerpts here).  Slate made fun of Loyola’s condescending memo. Then, District of Nebraska Senior Judge Kopf responded with a cheeky post titled, “On being a dirty old man and how young women lawyers dress.”  I love reading Judge Kopf’s posts, especially when I disagree with him. I like that he swears, he shares personal stories, he reflects and reconsiders things (his exchange with Shon Hopwood remains my favorite example) and he sometimes apologizes. He offered three rules “young women lawyers should follow when considering how to dress for court,” including calling men “pigs and prudes” and advising women against dressing so slutty that the clerks start chattering about it. He also said he really admired the view when it included cleavage and short skirts. For the many people who thought Ewwww! Erin Grace responded with a critique and Judge Kopf apologized (sort of) for objectifying women. Meanwhile, Scott Greenfield first expressed shock at Kopf but ultimately came to his defense. Many others chimed in, often displaying a very irritating eagerness to work the word “slut” into the conversation. 

Rule for interviews: wear what you want (but be informed because there is a uniform)

Tamara Tabo wrote the best post on this topic on Above the Law, stating directly and correctly “there is a uniform of professional attire.”

As a law student entering the profession, it would be inexcusably lazy to fail to learn the basic components of the expected uniform. What I recall of being a law student new to the experience of dressing for interviews was that the suited world seemed foreign and overwhelming. I was from a rural hippie town; I’d never seen anyone dress in a suit for work. I gratefully relied on employees at Talbots and Coach to help me select a very conservative first uniform. My law school experience is now twenty years stale and I would expect this information would be readily available in the internet age, but a friend currently attending a Southern California law school recently described to me– with some shock and dismay– that students were going to job interviews with swimsuit ties showing at the backs of their necks. Laziness? Statement? Uninformed? How’s an employer to know?

Again, Tabo is right: be informed about the uniform and then decide whether to accept, modify or reject it. Rejecting it, especially at an interview or internship specifically for the purpose of making an impression, has a consequence. If a person dresses in a way that seems extremely attention seeking, it comes across as disingenuous or foolish to then become indignant about drawing attention. Are you trying to make a point or trying to get a job? If your first priority is individual expression, some work environments may not share the value you place on personal creativity. If your outfit screams out “fuck you and your senseless rules,” people will hear it. If you go to an interview with swim top ties peeking out from your blazer, your prospective boss may wonder if your first priority is to maximize your beach time.

I still wear a conservative suit to any interview, professional appearance or meeting with any other agency or department. As Tabo says, it’s the uniform. As she writes, “Uniforms cover up distracting superficial individual differences, so that character, intellect, and skill get the attention. ‘Boring’ is a feature, not a bug.” That said, I believe there is a fair bit of leeway for anyone who projects professionalism; one of the best interns I’ve ever had wore the same inexpensive slacks and sweater every work day and no one cared a bit because her work was strong and she was professional.

Rule for the legal workplace: wear what you want.

Once on the job, there may be different expectations and they may be situational. In my years as a  PD, I’ve worn everything from expensive suits to the flowy maternity equivalent of pajamas made for the office. But, mostly I wear the tried and true uniform: a plain suit. I hate suits. I’d never be caught in one outside work. From my first summer job at the Public Defender Service in DC in 1991, I loved that the attorneys came to work in jeans and tie dye shirts, but put on their game faces and suits to charge into court. Putting on the uniform is part of the whole superhero act. It’s exciting, important, fun stuff we get to do and we suit up for it. 

Rule for jury trials: wear what you want (but never lie or be fake to jurors).

Whatever liberties I may take on days filled with jail interviews, I fully embrace the uniform for jury trials. I put on my game face and my sharpest suit. I suffer the pantyhose and the beautiful uncomfortable shoes. I care intensely what jurors think; my goal is to persuade them. They expect and prefer the uniform, so I wear my best uniform.

What about going that extra mile for persuasion? I’ve seen unmarried lawyers put on rings that look like wedding bands for trial because they believe jurors will find them more credible. I’ve opposed a prosecutor who always placed a mug with a photo of her children and the caption “#1 Mom” facing the jury. After 9/11, I watched many lawyers suddenly start wearing flag lapel pins. In response to Judge Kopf’s post, Mark Bennett suggested showing a little cleavage to jurors “for the good of the client.” That’s not for me. I actually bought one of those flag pins at Long’s after 9/11, but I never wore it because I felt self-conscious about it. I wouldn’t do any of the things in this paragraph because it would make me feel fake and weird. Figure out where your own comfort zone is, but don’t be fake to jurors. Ever.

I’ve seen plenty of great lawyers reject the uniform, especially down the road after some conservative buttoned up early years. One thing I love about public defenders is the culture of unconventional personalities. I’ve seen lawyers dazzle jurors and win huge cases while wearing clothes that are frumpy, or revealing, or have acres of crazy loud patterns, or are worn to absolute tatters. There are brilliant attorneys out there in orthopedic shoes and sneakers and cowboy boots.

So, be informed and thoughtful and authentic about it. But wear what you want.


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