Boutique Law Firms, Fashion, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Dress Code

Tom Wallerstein

A law school friend told me about a deposition he defended in Waco, Texas, where the temperature reached 105 degrees. At the time, my friend Geoff was an associate at a stuffy BigLaw firm, and there was never any doubt that he was required to wear a suit. And especially because the deposition was videotaped, the witness did, too.

Plaintiffs’ counsel was the owner of a smallish firm in Florida and he showed up wearing shorts, sandals and a short-sleeved polo shirt.

When they arrived at the deposition location, Geoff and his witness were dismayed to learn that the air conditioning wasn’t working. As the day progressed, the conference room grew increasingly warm. By late morning, the witness was restless and hot and kept firing glances across the room to the dormant air conditioner. The video was priceless; every answer was punctuated by the witness sweating and mopping his forehead. Geoff told me later that he thought his witness looked like he was lying even when he wasn’t.

Learn the truth about Geoff’s deposition…

It was only after the deposition was over that Geoff learned that the air conditioner was not broken at all; rather, his opposing counsel had paid the maintenance guy $100 to keep it turned off. Years later, Geoff still talks about that miserable day, and how envious he was that his opposing counsel had the luxury of wearing casual summer clothes to the deposition.

I can relate. One of the nice things about being an owner in a small firm is that I don’t have a dress code. I can wear whatever I want, whenever I want. That probably has more to do with being an owner than working at a smaller firm, but in any event I certainly exercise my prerogative whenever I take a deposition in a warm climate.

Even if associates necessarily have less freedom of choice of clothes, there still is a big variance in the dress codes of law firms. Geography certainly plays a role; jeans are probably more common in California than on the East Coast. I’ve joked before that one thing that brought me to California was going where the climate suits my clothes.

Regardless of geography, the culture of the particular firm also plays a role in the expected dress code. Quinn Emanuel, for example, gain recruiting capital for its tolerance of flip flops and its deliberate rejection of any formal dress code.

Firms also vary widely in terms of how strictly their dress code is enforced. Some firms may roll their institutional eyes at a partner who refuses to conform; others view the issue as extremely serious.

So, is running your own solo or small firm the key to liberating yourself from the shackles of dress code conformity?

Not necessarily. First, of course, any lawyer who appears in court still has to conform to the court’s dress code. Even the courts in California expect real shoes and suits.

But even beyond court appearances, lawyers’ wardrobe choices are not unlimited. This is true even for associates in more casual firms, and it’s true even for the owners of small firms. Even beyond formal dress codes, all practices necessarily have a certain “culture” which, to at least some extent, dictates appropriate attire.

Consciously or not, many lawyers try to dress in a way which mirrors the perceived dress code of their clients. Alternatively, lawyers try to dress in a way that they think their clients expect. Either way, thinking about a dress code is tantamount to thinking about your clients. For a firm just starting out, it is critical to identify with as much specificity as possible just exactly who you envision your clients will be. Thinking about your dress code is one way to help do this because it necessarily requires thinking about the dress code of your prospective clients, which in turn necessarily requires identifying who those prospects are.

For example, if you plan to specialize in construction defect cases, your clients will look different than clients who are executives in the banking and finance industries. If you plan to specialize in criminal defense, you may believe that your prospective clients expect their lawyer to project a certain style.

Because my office is in Silicon Valley, my general litigation practice has often focused on servicing high tech clients. When they hear “Silicon Valley,” many people recall images of Steve Jobs in his garage, or Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodie. This is the rationalization many Silicon Valley lawyers use to eschew wearing suits when not in court.

Actually, here in San Francisco, you’re pretty much allowed to wear nothing at all if it suits your fancy, pun intended. (Incidentally, the legal battles over public nudity out here have been pretty interesting. Just Google — and I’m not making this up — “Scott Wiener” and “skid mark law.”)

But there is real danger in assuming that a dress code doesn’t matter. The Bay Area in general, and even “Silicon Valley” in particular, is far more diverse than the common stereotype recognizes. San Francisco, with all its reputation for being liberal and casual, still has vital banking, finance, consulting and other interests which are traditionally more conservative, including in terms of how they dress. Lawyers practicing in the Bay Area should be wary of buying into stereotypes that serve to rationalize the convenience of them wearing too-casual clothes.

Also, just because Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie doesn’t make that appropriate attire for a lawyer who is courting a dotcom’s Board of Directors. Even Zuckerberg himself has been criticized, with some analysts calling his ultra-informal attire a sign of immaturity.

Regardless, there will always be attorneys who insist that the effectiveness of their legal work has nothing to do with how they dress, and that if clients can’t understand that then that is their loss. I’m not entirely convinced that dress has nothing whatsoever to do with performance; this is a similar debate that parents face when considering schools with and without dress codes. I don’t think it is a stretch to think that dressing for a certain role might influence how you perform. This is one reason why job-hunters are often advised to shower and dress for work when job-hunting, instead of perusing the wanted ads in their pajamas.

In any event, it is a rare lawyer who is so unconcerned about developing new business that he can blithely cast aside potential clients by adopting an “it’s their loss” attitude. Even if freed from a formal dress code, it makes sense for most of us, and certainly for lawyers who are considering opening their own firm, to give serious thought to the image we are trying to project, and to whom.

In Praise Of The American Garage [The Moderate Voice]
Zuckerberg’s Hoodie a ‘Mark of Immaturity,’ Analyst Says [Bloomberg]

Earlier: Summer Is Ending, But Flip-Flops Are Still Hot at Quinn Emanuel

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