Reader Mailbag Part I: What To Wear on Interviews Generally

Ellen Parsons took interviewing seriously… so should you!

Wow, it’s the start of the interview season already for those of you still in law school. Good luck! Stay tuned; we’re going to (try) to do a lot about interview tips and a guide to women’s suits. Immediately, though, we have this question from a reader named Summer:

I am a 3L law student looking to buy a nice conservative suit for interviews. I am also a big fan of corporette! I have looked around malls and nothing seems to be nice enough. The only thing that I have found in my size online is Talbots. I also ran across the site Do you think this site is legitimate? Do you have any other recommendations?

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Thank you so much for your kind words! We’re not familiar with the site, but we wouldn’t recommend going with a custom suit for a big interview unless you already had a relationship with an amazing tailor. Our best advice with interviewing for conservative jobs is that the entire goal of your interview wardrobe should be to take the focus off your appearance and put the focus where it should be: on your mind, your accomplishments, and the way you carry yourself. You can show your personality, your taste, your quirky sense of humor — whatever! — later, after you’ve got the job. That said, we might suggest adhering to some simple guidelines when buying clothes for interviewing.

  • Buy within your budget. No one’s going to “ding” you on an interview because your suit isn’t Armani.
  • Choose a dark suit. A black or navy suit is always more conservative than a brightly- or lightly-colored suit, and if you have to buy something inexpensive then it will hide the imperfections in the fabric and the seams.
  • Buy a skirt suit. We know, we know: feminism, equality, misogyny, etc. We’re not saying it’s cool. We’re saying it’s a crazy world out there and you should go with the most conservative option available if you want the job — which for women is a skirt suit. The skirt should be knee-length or slightly above the knee. If there’s a slit in the back of the skirt, make sure that a) you’ve pulled out any threads that “closed” the slit with a big X, b) the slit doesn’t go so high that you’re showing your upper thighs or worse — if you’re wearing control-top pantyhose those control tops should not be showing, and c) if it’s an old skirt, make sure the slit isn’t in need of repair. We tend to wear dark pantyhose (“off black” or gray is our preference, for some reason) but in writing this we’ve realized we’re not absolutely sure what’s appropriate — good thing tomorrow is the poll of the week! Be sure you pull a chair over to a full-length mirror and practice sitting in the skirt suit; you want to see what the interviewer will see and make sure you look appropriate and tasteful.
  • Dress for the season you’re in. If you’ve got an interview this week, please don’t go in wearing a tweed suit — you’ll look like you’re not aware of your surroundings. Similarly, if you’re interviewing in January or April, don’t go in wearing a white linen suit.
  • Wear a suit that fits well. We’ve all had it happen: you gain a few pounds and swear you’re going to take it off so there’s no point in buying new clothes. Trust us, we hear you. This is one of those times that you’ve got to just suck it up and go buy a bigger size (or two), because you will be dinged for your appearance if your suit is too tight. See our Lisa Cuddy 360 Review for reference, but here are some telltale signs your suit does not fit you:
    • You can’t button the jacket, or the buttons don’t lay flat once buttoned
    • The skirt is “smiling” because it’s being pulled so tight across your hips
    • When you walk the skirt hikes itself up because it’s too tight across your hips
    • Your arms look like sausages in the jacket
    • You can’t lift your arms above your head
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  1. Great advice. I’m a law student as well and I found some really great suits at Ann Taylor. They have sales all the time ( you can always find a 20% off coupon or something around) and the quality is very nice. Plus, they are feminine while also conservative (ie, they come in at the waist, give you a shape, etc).

    • yes yes, ann taylor/loft is the best, especially if you’re petite and itty bitty!

  2. ladyparts :

    Love this, but what about SHOES?! Just saw this and am a little panicked:

    Is it even worse for girls? I mean, they can’t be expecting Manolos from a 2L. Right?

  3. Just checked out the Bitter Lawyer site — funny! I think it’s more intended for people who are at law firms already. Some advice for shoes:

    – Don’t go too high — be sure you can walk in them. (We went on a few interviews back in the day where some junior male associates thought it would be a great idea to walk five blocks to take us to lunch during our callback interview.)

    – Closed toe, closed heel. Yes, a black shoe is acceptable with a navy suit.

    – Maintain your shoes well — take them to your shoe guy to get them polished, get the heels evened out, fix anything else that’s noticeably wrong with them

    – Nothing too fancy or strappy. Strive for the best leather you can afford. For the love of God, no glittery embellishments.

  4. Having been in the legal recruiter seat at two major firms, I love this topic! Yes, the interview suit should be such that it’s YOU that shines. One suggestion is Lafayette 148 (sizes 2-16), available at Lord & Taylor, Saks and Nordstrom. Wonderful 4 season wool with a bit of lycra makes the separates especially comfortable and versatile. You could buy a jacket and matching pants and skirt and get through the whole year with just a few other pieces.

    Please don’t forget your hair, ladies. So many interviewers get nervous and toy with their locks – don’t do it – it’s very distracting. Just like Ellen P. in the photo, put your long hair up for the interview, and if yours is short to medium, do your best to keep your hands out of it.

  5. FWIW: I have had very good luck buying work clothes from Banana Republic. It’s at the point where I can just order online because I know my size, “fit,” length, etc. They also have several mix-and-match options — meaning, pantsuit, skirt suit, jacket (sometimes 2 different styles) and, in some cases, a dress — all in the same material. BR has also improved their line of work- and interview-appropriate shoes. Now that I’m more comfortable in my work environment I am experimenting more with color but BR has several options for basic, neutral, conservative and still stylish (IMHO) work clothes.

  6. Anonymous :

    As for what to wear underneath your suit, I’d suggest a crewneck sweater or camisole that is not low cut is often easier than trying to get a button blouse or shirt to lay properly, not gape open, and not wrinkle. The sleeveless J. Crew cashmere or cotton sweaters (that go with the matching cardigans) are great, especially with simple necklace.

  7. Slingbacks aren’t OK?

  8. Love the tips, but I’ve got to say I disagree with the necessity for a skirt suit. When I was interviewing for a BigLaw job I only wore pantsuits and was something like 11 offers out of 12 interviews. Now I interview law school candidates all the time and I can’t say I even notice if they are wearing a skirt or a pantsuit.

    I think the most important thing is to be comfortable in what you are wearing because any discomfort will shine through.

  9. To Anonymous, above: We would agree that button-downs under suits are more trouble than their worth. However, we’d advise to avoid a camisole for an August interview week: it may seem like you’ll be cooler, but your suit will be able to go longer without drycleaning if you stick to t-shirts or short-sleeved sweaters. (Yes, we’re cheap that way.)

    To Anne and K: I’d say that slingbacks and pantsuits are on the same level: no one born after 1950 will have a problem with them. However… you’re not always being interviewed by people who were born after 1950. Regarding pantsuits, we heard a story through a friend (can’t remember if it was his judge or a friend’s judge) of a blind judge who would make his clerks tell him when women lawyers were wearing pantsuits. And THAT is why we will always wear a skirt suit for a first impression.

    Finally, to K — you go, girl, great job at interview week! A friend of ours had a similar experience and got 17 callbacks out of 21 interviews (all for BigLaw jobs) at a top-tier school a few years ago.

  10. ladyparts :

    C, thanks so much for the advice! And I have to say, I’d heard different things about open toe vs. closed toe but your advice was the tipping point for me — and not a moment too soon with all the summery (open toed) shoes on sale now!! :-)

  11. Re: Anonymous & the button-downs: I have never been able to find a button-down that fits well — if it fits around the chest, it’s too big everywhere else, frankly. I don’t do camisoles — I prefer to take my suit jacket off while I’m working in my office and I wouldn’t be comfortable in a cami if a partner or colleague walked in. I have plenty of short-sleeved, well-fitting (not too big but definitely not snug) tops — cashmere for the winter, light silk (or another fine fabric) for summer. Usually a crewneck or cowlneck. I’m curious — what’s Corporette’s opinion on short-sleeved “shells” as a way to keep cool? Does it still look professional?

    • Hey M in CA, I had the same problems with button down shirts. I just wear a minimizer bra with a stretchy button down from Jcrew (but that’s because I’m a poor college student). Doing some clothing research for my summer internship I stumbled upon this site, that makes shirts for very hourglassy types. It might work for you:

  12. We recently had the chance to interview Tory Johnson, who frequently appears as a ‘workplace expert’ on Good Morning America, about this topic. She had some interesting points, mainly about conveying your own personal style regardless of whether you’re wearing a suit or not. She also spoke a lot about using jewelry and other accessories to jazz up and outfit. Check out the rest here:

  13. Great topic, though I also disagree with the skirt suit advice. Any smart looking pantsuit that fits well is appropriate. I’m more comfortable in them and I also think that there’s less emphasis on the shoes.

    I’ve worn only pantsuits while interviewing at NYC biglaw firms as a 2L, as a lateral candidate and this year when interviewing for in-house positions and received multiple offers each time. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to work at a place that had a serious issue with women wearing a pantsuit.

    Re: Anonymous: I also prefer shells to button downs under suits- I feel they lay a bit better and feel a little less fussy.

  14. Is it more appropriate to leave your suit jacket buttoned when sitting or is it better to unbutton it, as I’ve heard men usually do. I really struggled with what to do during recent interviews because everyone had a different opinion. Depending on the suit I was wearing, I either left it buttoned the whole time or not buttoned at all, but I’d like to know what people do generally.

  15. Former 3L :

    Biglaw tends to be located in big cities where women in all types of careers wear pant suits every day. I myself favor pant suits immensely but you should definitely know your audience. If the town you’re interviewing in is more conservative, you should still stick with a skirt. If you’re not sure how conservative a particular firm is, stick with a skirt. Even within Biglaw firms it can vary from office to office.

    • FitnessKat :

      Agree with this strongly. I feel skirt suits are the safer choice. With the skirt suit wearing pantyhose are a must.

  16. Is leaving the geese formation still an option going into life as a 3L? I already see myself a Bitter Lawyer / Big Firm Whore in training. Shoes aside, did anyone read her other posts? I wish my mom would be cool if I ditched the last two years of hard work in law school to go into the penniless world of PR. I hate myself for being so convincing when I sold her on assisting me through law school back when I thought this was going to be my new fabulous career. Ugh!

  17. A very anxious 2L :

    I second the question on whether it is appropriate to leave your suit unbuttoned. Also, a few of my friends have been arguing about whether your shirt should be showing at the bottom of your suit jacket. A lot of stores are only offering suit jackets like that, as it is the ‘fashionable’ way to wear them right now. Would it be an unforgivable offense? And, last question, if I were to wear a black pants suit, would it be to wild to wear a light pink button down shirt underneath? I want to show some individuality in the sea of black suit/white shirt students, but I also don’t want to scare off the employers. Though I don’t know if I would want to work somewhere where that would be unacceptable attire… Your opinion on any of this would be great!

  18. Anon & very anxious – re: suit buttons — these are EXCELLENT questions. I remember in mock trial in high school my father taught me the button/unbutton thing, but I’ve never really seen it done elsewhere. For a 20-minute interview I’d say leave it buttoned. But perhaps we’ll do a poll for you guys, as I really don’t know. As so many suits featured for women seem to be intended to be worn with not much but camisoles underneath (see, e.g., then I’m guessing not. Or perhaps one is only supposed to do it if you’re wearing a pants suit that you open up?

    Re: light pink — absolutely! Hot pink might be questionable, but even then, if it looks great on you and the rest of the suit is conservative it’s fine. But light pink wouldn’t be wild at all.

    Kelly — I read the other BFW posts and didn’t see anything about the PR stuff — could you please send me the link? Love the interviews on that site; another site with great interviews is JD Bliss. And hey, it’s never too late to leave the formation. (Although it might be something to weigh heavily if you’re just a few years away from breaking even with what law school cost you.)

  19. Oh, sorry for the mislead — there was nothing in the BFW pieces about PR necessarily, but I think if I ditched the law, that’s the industry I’d flock back to because of my previous experience. In PR it pays to have your own style. Granted, it’s very shallow, and I acknowledge the vicious cycle, which is that I would earn pennies compared to a job at a BF and therefore not even be able to afford trendier fashions, but two BF summer gigs have already whet my appetite for more personal flare.

    One commenter said the following on this post:

    “lol! The Big Firm Whore hasn’t figured out the NYC social ladder: 1) celebrities, 2) independently wealthy, 3) finance, 4) fashion, 5) publishing 6) musician/comedian, 7) advertising/marketing, 8) assorted hipsters, 9) policement/firemen, 10) lawyer, 11) accountant. Spyder likely has you beat.”

    Ladies, do you all feel comfortable with a lifestyle of sensible buns, understated colors and a less desirable social image?

    I mean, BFW seems to be a reasonable girl — and I’m sure everything is amped up for the sake of writing — but I feel like I read myself in between the lines in her pieces, and I’m nervous. All this talk about slingback shoes, skirt suits and button policies makes me wonder if I’m preparing myself to work at a law firm or a church. And if the very discussion of dress code has me on the ledge, what’s to come?

    I truly admire the commitment you ladies exhibit. The willingness to visually blend in order to achieve your goals doesn’t’ come easy, I’m sure. And it’s too bad that it exists this way. I suppose I’ll simply continue to march on my cold feet till I warm up to one way of life or the other.

  20. Kelly –

    “The willingness to visually blend” — nail on the head, here. IMHO, this is what interview week is all about — as it is when you’re a real lawyer and appearing in court (especially as a junior associate). The reason people think it’s a soul-crushing profession, though, is because they mistake interview week’s fashions and strictures for the job itself. I don’t think that’s true — at my firm lots of partners and associates dress with style and taste (and a bit of whimsy sometimes also). It’s just not recommended for interview week.

    Regarding leaving the law — I like the analogy with cold feet.

    – C


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