Fashion, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: The Small-Firm Dress Code

The other day, Staci wrote about dress codes at some of the large firms. Specifically, Quinn Emanuel made some noise by putting out a minimalist dress code, requiring only shoes “because our insurance company requires them!” (Yes, it’s their exclamation point.) This was in stark contrast to other Biglaw dress codes, like the paternalistic one at Jones Day. (I, for one, applaud the Quinn Emanuel approach.)

But what about at small firms? Unlike their Biglaw counterparts, most small firms don’t have written policy manuals and spelled-out dress codes. On the one hand, this can be good; I believe that employees tend to be happier when their lives at work are not hyperlegislated. (See, for example, my takes on sick leave and bereavement leave.)

But the flip side is that small-firm lawyers are often at sea over what to wear. Sometimes, people need a little guidance.

So what should the dress code be at your small firm?

In the late nineties, law firm dress norms went through a bunch of rapid changes, causing all kinds of confusion. Until that point, it was all pretty straightforward: Guys wore suits (preferably charcoal or navy blue; pinstripes optional) and white shirts with red or blue ties (the crazy ones could get away with yellow). Some of the older partners wore bow ties, primarily because society frowned upon the wearing of signs that said “douchebag.” (Same difference.) Women wore… well, they basically also wore men’s suits. At least, that’s what they looked like. They might have been cut a little differently, and they may have had long skirts instead of pants, but they basically looked indistinguishable from their male peers.

At the time (1999), my law partner and I wanted to be taken seriously, so we dressed the same way as our Biglaw friends. We wore suits because they wore suits.

But then everything changed. As far as I know, the driving force in the change was the dot-com boom. Suddenly, all these twentysomethings were making skitillions of dollars (that’s one followed by a wad of zeroes, or ten to the wad) on the relatively new-fangled (or at least medium-fangled) interwebs thing. When lawyers showed up at their garage-based offices wearing their best Brooks Brothers, they looked ridiculous among the foosball tables and bean-bag chairs.

So the lawyers adapted (which is pretty unusual for us). Suddenly, Biglaw started issuing new dress codes, mainly centered around golf shirts, blue blazers, and khakis. It was all kinds of laughable, really. Lawyers who were worried about looking like lawyers now looked like, well, lawyers in blue blazers. 

Of course, my partner and I now felt funny wearing suits every day, when the Biglaw folks we were emulating were dressing more casually than we were. After about six months of this, we ended up making the same switch.

Then the dot-com boom became the dot-com crash, and Biglaw lawyers slowly reverted back to their natural Brooks Brothers form, although some persisted in their Izods and Polos. Then, it all fell apart, and no one knew what to wear.

In retrospect, our small-firm approach of mimicking Biglaw was silly. The mistake we were making was in trying to look like someone else. This is an occupational hazard for most lawyers. Instead, we should have worried about being authentic. Nothing looks less authentic than people trying to look someone they’re not.

Over time, I stopped worrying about looking like a Mini-Me Biglaw lawyer. Instead, I settled on a look that I was comfortable with; one that fit with how I saw myself. For example, I don’t wear ties anymore. I stopped wearing them about five years ago, unless I was going to court or a funeral. (This might have something to do with going to a high school where I had to wear a tie every day. I therefore reached my lifetime saturation point for ties earlier than most.)

Balancing the more-casual look of an open collar, I usually wear a well-tailored Italian-made suit (discounted at Filene’s Basement, but don’t tell anyone that), a starched, bright white or solid-colored shirt, and English dress shoes. That way, clients should have a sense that I dressed up for them, even though I’m not sporting a tie.

In addition to authenticity, it’s important to show the appropriate level of respect for whomever you’re going to be in front of. Let me give you an example:

About six years ago, a client called out of the blue around lunchtime on a casual Friday. One of their top software engineers had just announced that he was going to go work the following Monday at my client’s main competitor, in violation of his noncompete. Could we stop him right away?

My partner and I spent the next three hours frantically writing a motion and brief for a temporary restraining order, then hightailed it to court to get in front of a judge at 4:15. The judge allowed me an ex-parte hearing, so I made my argument… in blue jeans, an open shirt, a blazer, and Merrells. The first thing out of my mouth was an apology and an explanation for my attire. That way, I was able to convey the proper respect for the court that my clothing could not.

I’m not remotely suggesting that anyone reading this should follow my fashion lead; that would be missing the point. In fact, I feel kind of ridiculous describing my lawyerly work attire. Instead, what I’m attempting here is a set of guidelines:

  • Dress authentically as yourself, not as someone else.
  • Dress to show the appropriate level of respect for your audience (client, opposing counsel, judge, grandmother).
  • Don’t have a nanny-state Jones Day–like dress code. If you don’t have enough respect for your people to be able to dress themselves, you either have the wrong people, or you’re in the wrong business.
  • If you’re not the most fashionable person in the world, get some advice from people who seem to always dress well. Or look at appropriate magazines or TV shows.
  • Above all, use common sense.

Your small firm doesn’t need a written dress code. You’re never going to fool someone into thinking that you’re a Biglaw lawyer by trying to dress like one. You’re better off being yourself instead.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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