We all have to wear clothes to work. What we choose or are required to wear says a lot about our employers, our professions, our wealth, and social expectations. Many professions are defined by their clothes. Lawyers are traditionally included in this group, albeit not as obviously as fire-fighters or doctors.
Lawyers generally wear business suits. While women have some flexibility, most men will wear a blue or grey suit with a tie. Pinstripe is the camouflage of lawyers in amongst the financial towers, where the big firms hunt for deals that they can “facilitate.” Black or brown leather shoes will ensure that your feet are properly ignored. The risqué male members of the profession will act-out with elaborate ties or socks while women have been known to express themselves with their shoes or scarves.
The rigidity of these expectations varies according to the market. The attire sported by Vancouver lawyers is well-diluted from the formality on display in Toronto, London, or New York. Our relaxed law firms have even been so bold as to wear blue jeans on the occasional Friday. This must seem downright revolutionary to certain audiences.
Cost & Tradition
The idea is to look professional. That is the word that is most often used to describe what lawyers should wear. Look good without actually being noticed. Professionalism will ultimately depend on the specifics of a lawyer’s practice. Social sorting applies just as much within groups, with tax lawyers trying to distinguish themselves from environmental lawyers.
I have another word to apply: expensive. Lawyers need to dress particularly well because it instils confidence and justifies the cost of their services. Because many legal matters lack definitive measures of success, clients need to think that an hourly rate of several hundred dollars can be justified. A senior lawyer sporting Harry Rosen’s or Holt Renfrew’s best looks like a million bucks – or at least like $350/hour.
The cost of professional clothing is built-into the cost of hiring the lawyer. Besides buying expensive clothes, there is also the ongoing cost of dry-cleaning. These costs are overhead for the firm. It is no different from an extravagant lobby or a photocopier.
Another reason that lawyers dress the way they do is because they always have. Solicitors have worn business suits for as long as there have been solicitors. This has created some confusion as women have entered the profession. Women haven’t been able to fall back on such conveniently conservative expectations. It certainly doesn’t help that the fashion influences for lawyers are drawn from accountants and bankers, groups not exactly known for their design instincts.
I have thus far not acknowledged the most publicly recognizable form of legal attire: tabs and gowns. These are only worn by litigators (aka barristers) who actually go to court. In Vancouver, this is a minority of all lawyers. Unlike our American counterparts, Canadian lawyers continue to wear these black gowns with white tabs (collars) to court hearings. They are not a requirement in all proceedings or at all levels of court. The idea is that it provides a reminder to all present of the solemnity of the occasion. It also helps focus the court on legal arguments rather than curvaceous appeals. There is also our sentimental attachment to the UK and to tradition. On the other hand, gowns are alienating to the public and ensures that the court institution itself in no way follows modern social norms.
At least we don’t still wear wigs.
Aside from gowns, there have been efforts to establish uniforms for lawyers. They have failed. The theoretical advantage of this option is that the uniforms themselves could be tax deductable and would make daily style decisions more manageable and egalitarian. The opposing arguments are ultimately very similar to school uniforms. Our local history has conclusively sided with the no-uniform for lawyers camp.
What to Wear
The legal profession is changing. Fashion will follow suit. As legal services stratify with the introduction of retail fixed-fee models and ultra-premium bespoke legal services, I expect we’ll see lawyers wearing different things. On the low-end, I imagine that firms will seize the marketing opportunity presented by legal uniforms. Business suits are here to stay on the high-end. Looking good isn’t only a matter of vanity. Clients need to trust their lawyers. This trust is directly connected to professional appearances.
BUT, appearances only matter when you see someone. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the practice of law involves increasingly less face time. The appearance of your email signature may have a bigger impact than your tie. Instead of dressing according to infrequent client meetings, my sense is that lawyers should dress for their average day and then plan on dressing-up as needed. This saves on high-end clothes and drycleaning (overhead), while ensuring that you’re actually comfortable for your work day. While comfort means different things, you should at the very least dress according to the seasons. My solution is as follows:
Fancy Pants Law
Keep several good suits in your office. On a daily basis, wear a comfortable shirt (dare I say a t-shirt?), comfortable shoes, a belt and very fancy pants. The pants are your nod to professionalism even while you lounge behind a desk sending emails. Be prepared to switch to your suit in a moment’s notice. You heard it here first…fancy pants. Fancy pants law.