What Not to Wear, Chicago Bar Style

We’re getting a lot of questions from readers about this article at Above the Law.   For example, from one reader:

I am a 2L at law school and about to start as a summer associate at a law firm in Washington, D.C.  There was an article on Above the Law about an event in Chicago on Fashion Do’s and Don’ts.  After reading this, I have absolutely no idea what is ok to wear.  It seems like every professional clothing item I own now needs to be thrown out.  I was just curious about your thoughts on this….is this the reality of what to wear in a law firm?  Thanks so much!

We didn’t attend the event, obviously, but we do have a few thoughts on some of the “rules” that they cite.

  • Their General “Rule” Espoused:  Do not look sexy.
  • Our “Rule”:  Do not dress in a way that makes people think you are looking for a husband or a date at the office.
  • The Caveats:  However — this does not mean that you cannot wear heels, wear fitted clothing, or wear makeup.  It does mean that you might want to rethink your life if your Saturday night makeup is the same as your Monday morning makeup, or if one top can do double duty for both of those situations.  As we’ve mentioned before, heels that are too high should perhaps be avoided at the office.  (We would say that the absolute, maximum borderline is 3.5″ or 4″ — keep in mind that most of our office shoes are more like 2″.)  You may want to leave your push-up bra at home.
  • The “Rule”:  Always wear pantyhose.
  • Our “Rule”: If it is your first week to a new job or professional situation, or if it’s your first time meeting a new client or appearing before that judge, then wear hose.
  • The Caveats:  Whether or not you have to keep wearing hose is a case-by-case determination.  When you are attempting to determine whether you need to keep wearing hose, look to the older women there, not your fellow newbies or the people only slightly more superior than you.  If you haven’t seen someone else go bare-legged, then keep wearing hose or risk running afoul of that office’s culture.
  • Other applications:  Open-toe shoes, peep toe shoes, boots, sleeveless dresses, colored nail polish (and certainly dark nail polish)
  • The “Rule”:  Do not wear red pumps, ever.
  • Our “Rule”:  We have red pumps, and red flats (patent, no less).  We would never wear them on an interview, but we might wear them to the office with a regular skirt.  Factors to keep in mind:  Red high heels should not also be shiny — a very matte leather is what you want.  Color matters:  A darker red can seem downright conservative.  Furthermore, be wary of what kind of shoes they are — for example, if the shoes  already have a vintage sexy-secretary vibe to them, buy them in a matte black, not a red.
  • The Caveats:  Know your office.
  • The “Rule”:  Do not wear a ponytail, and for God’s sake don’t wear a side ponytail.
  • Our “Rule”:  Meh.  We’re not really sure we have a rule here, aside from this:  Pigtails are never going to be a professional look.
  • The Caveats:  We’ve talked before about whether a high ponytail can look professional, or whether one can wear a ponytail too often to the office, or what kinds of hair accessories you can wear.  It varies based on your hair style, your office culture, and how neatly you look when your hair is back.  In general, this author’s personal rule is that I try to wear my hair down during the day (or at least when walking the halls or going to a meeting) but then pull it back when it’s later in the evening or when I’m alone in the office working — but then that’s primarily based on the reason that I don’t generally look good in a ponytail.

Other things, we somewhat agree with — do not wear clothing that shows your lower-back tattoo; do not wear clothing that tells people something about your underwear.  We would also caution that just because one judge says pants suits are fine for him does not mean that he is speaking for the entire judiciary — we’ve heard from at least one reader who notes that a local judge has openly expressed his preference for skirt suits.  Readers, what are your thoughts on the “rules” as we’ve pulled them out?  Any other thoughts on the “advice” from the event?

Comments

  1. the way I read it, the ATL post was intended to be very snarky & sarcastic – the rules Kat pulled out are good ones, but anyone reading the whole post should be aware that the bloggers meant to make fun of how ridiculous the entire thing was.

    • Only one of them, I think. The other one seemed to buy it all hook, line and sinker.

      • yeah – one of them is being sarcastic, one of them completely drinks the kool-aid. i only figured out that the one was being sarcastic when I got to the part about not wearing pink. I’m a little dense :)

        • Haha, I still missed that. I was like “seriously??? I’m one of only 4 female litigators at my firm (out of about 30 total) and 3 of us wear pink on a regular enough basis.” Glad to know I just missed the sarcasm boat! Another good lesson in how text doesn’t always translate the same way it does in person.

        • I will give up my pink Chanel jacket when hell freezes over.

  2. I disagree on the red patent leather heels – I have a pair that I wear (rarely) with pants. They aren’t super high and they aren’t FM shoes. They are cute and patent and when my toes peek out of my pants, they look cute.

    Overall, I hated this article. Of course one shouldn’t display underwear, etc. But I think that worrying too much about what a man might think is the opposite of what women need to do in the workplace. Women have failed in the past because they tried to be men. Btw, I dress very professionally, but I do have my own style (and that style includes bracelets and necklaces I’ve bought in Africa on my many trips — I figure nothing intimidates me in a meeting if I can go camping somewhere some of these men are afraid to venture — and my African jewelry reminds me that I can be a bad ass when I want to be).

    • I definitely agree on the red shoes. I have two pairs–one deep red patent and the other a mary jane with red patent and leopard print horsehair. Both are 3″. And I get lots of compliments from both men and women at work because the shoes are fierce.

      If if it is just a normal day at the office (no client meetings, etc), I say “why not?” :-) Yes, it depends on your office, but for mine, it works.

      • I wear a pair of super conservative wine-red pumps to work & they are the best!

      • Are your red-patent/leopared print ones the Kate Spade ones from 2 years ago?? I was coveting those shoes, waited too long to buy them and then couldn’t find them anywhere. I am jealous!

    • Robin, I totally agree with you! Hard-and-fast rules don’t usually work, since every office is different. As long as we aren’t looking like we work part-time at the local strip joint, and otherwise look professional, women should be able to wear what they want! I was talking to an older, respected litigator at my county’s Women Attorneys group, and she was talking about buying new pieces for her spring wardrode. She kept saying, “I want more color”! When I asked her how she felt in court if she was wearing a bright pop of color, she said “screw those men, I’ll get up and make a better argument than all of them, and if they’re looking at my bright blue blouse, they won’t be for long!” I thought that was a really funny way of saying that we women shouldn’t feel pressured to be what men think we should be. We are all adults, and capable of knowing what is work-appropriate and what is not.

      • I love it. I believe that to really be a leader, you can’t be afraid of distinguishing yourself from the masses. Its funny — I’m super liberal, travel to “scary” places, run a non-profit in my “spare” time, and am a vegetarian — and I find that my most conservative and old-fashioned clients are some of my most loyal clients. They make no apologies for who they are, so why should I?

  3. Off topic question–has anyone ever ordered from yoox.com? I read some reviews online that weren’t so great, but C’s feed about the 90% off has rekindled interest in the site. Any thoughts?

    • Yoox final sales are great IF you know the designer and the fit of the clothes since there are no returns on the sale items. I have had great experiences buying from this site, and if clothes are not on sale, returns are fairly easy.

  4. The bloggers quoted, particularly legallyfab, were clearly having some fun. That said, even I have a pair of red shoes that I wear. They aren’t fire engine red, they aren’t patent, they aren’t even 3 inches high. But they are red. And they are just fine, most days.

  5. I’m not an attorney, but it still just boggles my mind that some judges “prefer” skirt suits.

    • I KNOW! Who is a judge to be telling you if you should be wearing pants or skirt? I would hardly classify myself as a feminist but even the suggestion of someone (especially a man) telling me I should be wearing a skirt suit makes my blood boil. That is just not right. SO inappropriate on so many levels.

      • It sucks, and I agree with all these sentiments, but if you fight back you just anger the judge and ultimately hurt your client, which is the first big “no-no” of being a lawyer. There aren’t really good options for attorneys in this situation.

      • It’s a surefire way to make me buy a dozen pant suits and shove any skirtsuits I might own in the back of my closet… I imagine that most people have an idea of what is/isn’t appropriate (white before or after easter, 3 inch heels or 1 inch heels, etc.), but to have the nerve to actually tell someone what to wear —- makes my blood pressure go up and I’m just typing about it!

      • Interestingly, in my jurisdiction the judge that is most known for expecting women in skirt suits in court is a woman.

    • Meh. It didn’t make sense to me until someone asked me whether I would wear pants to a “formal” dinner or wedding. I said of course not. She replied that court is formal too. Skirts are more formal than pants.

      At any rate, pantyhose are more comfortable than neckties IMO, so I am not going to complain too much about wearing skirt suits.

      • I disagree with the analogy. If you’re going to court, you’re going to work, not a dinner date or a wedding. You wouldn’t wear a ballgown to court or wear your hair in ringlets (well, one would hope not many would do that at a wedding) to court so why require a skirt? Suits with pants (I hate calling them pantsuits b/c that implies that they are different from regular suits) are incredibly formal as long as the fit is right. In NYC courts, most women wear pants to court.

        All that said, if a judge had a preference, I’d wear a skirt because I wouldn’t want the judge to take it out on my client. Sucks but that’s life.

        • A wedding is formal, and formal dress attire is a dress. A courtroom is formal, and formal business attire is a skirt suit. That’s the analogy.

          • Still not buying it, but then, I’d wear pants to a wedding.

          • I have to disagree that there is really any difference. I wore a formal pants outfit to a wedding several years ago and was certainly not the only woman there in pants. IIRC, I think a friend and her husband’s coworker were also wearing pants.

          • Yeah, back in the 1980′s perhaps. It’s so outdated today. If our Secretary of State can wear pantsuits in the context of representing our country, it’s ridiculous to suggest that a professional woman can’t wear pantsuits any place in the business world. These judges who “can’t abide” pantsuits shouldn’t be indulged. They are so out of step with the times.

          • Anonymous :

            If Elena Kagan can represent the United States in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in a pantsuit–which she did her first appearance as Solicitor General–then a pantsuit is formal business attire.

            http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/sg_dumped_traditional_morning_coat_for_first_high_court_appearance/

      • There are plenty of really dressy pants (silk palazzo and the like) that would be appropriate for a formal event or wedding.

  6. I agree…the ATL post was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, especially all of the talk about “tempting the males” in the office. The reason Corporette exists is that there are all sorts of no-no’s and fine lines that a woman can cross when dressing for work. Look, if you think that you appear too sassy for work, you probably do. But if you are wearing a dress or something fitted and you look CLASSY, not trashy, then you are probably doing something right. The advice to dress like the women above you, not the women at or below your level, will almost never fail (unless, of course, the women above you are frumps!).

    Other things I agreed with:
    * No cleavage, ever
    * No short skirts, ever (but an inch or two above the knee is fine, if you are tall; yet, beware the Ally McBeal skirt suit trends this season–they will lead you astray!).

    And I disagreed with the red shoes thing–they can be done tastefully to jazz up an otherwise plain outfit…key is tasteful!

    • i am 5’2″. would a skirt 2 inches above my knee be too short? was just wondering about your “if you are tall” caveat.

      • in my opinion (and i am an envelope-pusher w/r/t hemlines and workwear in general), 2″ is pushing it. I’m 5’6″, and I think 2″ would be my absolute limit, and in that event I wear dark hose and flats and would probably be tugging down my skirt all day. Anything more looks childish if you’re short or too revealing if you’re tall.

        • Anonymous :

          I disagree. I’m 5’3″ and I feel like I look childish in really long skirts. In fact, I kind of struggle to find things that are short enough because most “normal” skirt lengths are long on me. That said, I don’t go more than 2-3 inches above the knee. But I feel self-conscience when my skirts are below my knee.

      • I think petite women should generally stick with the top of the kneecap as a general guideline, middle of the kneecap at the longest. But, as with all general rules, you’ll want to experiment to see what works for you.

        Wear the skirt with a blouse and pair of shoes you will wear with it to your tailor/seamstress and have her pin the skirt to various lengths to see what works best for you. Take some time to walk around, bend, sit, etc. for modesty checks and maybe even bring a friend with you to get a second opinion.

        • Seconded! I’m 5’2″ and wear my skirts so they just touch the top of my knee. Anything shorter and I start to get super uncomfortable and fidget with the skirt.

          • I wasn’t trying to make more petite ladies feel bad; this is based on personal experience. I have ridiculoulsy long legs, and even when I wear a skirt below the knee they are ridiculously long–36″ inseam. Thus, I see little difference if I wear a skirt an inch or two above the knee (with not-to-sassy footwear) because either way, 1) a lot of leg is gonna show and 2) everything is completely covered. Just a personal thing–I have worked in VERYVERYVERY conservative white-shoe law firms in NYC and London, and never had any inappropriate comments. Sad fact is, I am tall and leggy no matter where my hemline falls. And I can still be professional an inch or two above the knee.

            I agree (based on my many petite friends’) that having too-long skirts when you are petite makes you seem even tinier.

            But don’t mistake this season’s skirts as work appropriate–a lot of them are an inch below miniskirt, and look ridiculous when paired with a jacket. Just don’t go there!

      • 2 inches above the knee is where my skirts fall (I’m 5’2″ as well) – otherwise my already short legs look even shorter, which just makes me look frumpy and frumpy does not equal professional or forward thinking!

    • I actually think it’s the opposite – petite women can wear shorter skirts because we are showing less skin overall, and longer skirts tend to make us look completely stumpy. I am 5’4″ but with unusually short legs and I always wear above-the-knee skirts.

      • Anonymous :

        I get that some judges may think that skirts are more formal, but I find myself in a bind…I don’t show my legs for religious reasons and have never seen a real suit with an ankle-length skirt (if any one has and it doesn’t look horrid, please share). Does that mean I can’t be a lawyer who appears in court? I should hope not.

        • Anonymous :

          Ooops, replied in the wrong place–meant to be in response to Eponine above @ 6.02pm.

        • I can’t imagine a judge asking you to wear a skirt instead of pants any more than I can imagine a judge asking you to take off your hijab scarf (I’m assuming you’re Muslim, because if you were an Orthodox Jew you wouldn’t wear pants but you would wear tights with a knee-length skirt). Having said that, I know a few Muslim and Jewish lawyers who manage to find nice, mid-calf or ankle length skirt suits. Unfortunately I don’t know where they get them.

        • Same situation. Never seen an acceptable suit with a long skirt. That won’t keep me out of a courtroom — I am a litigator and have been in court numerous times in suits with pants. (I don’t think the judges requiring skirts are *that* common.) But I have started to worry about how I would respond if a judge did ask. I have been thinking about the possibility of opaque tights with a suit. Don’t know if that’s doable for you? I worry that I would still be uncomfortable and it would look unprofessional anyway. Not to mention inappropriate in the summer.

          • The judge I worked for required skirts and hose even in chambers, and I can guarantee you that if you said that you preferred to cover your legs for religious reasons he would have had no objection to your wearing pants. Judges who require skirts tend to be conservative, and therefore respectful of people’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

          • I would probably look for a good tailor and have one or two suits made with long skirts. That way you’ll feel comfortable and great about your outfit and be able to focus on the task at hand! No sense in trying to cobble together a look that you won’t really feel comfortable in, it will just distract you.

        • Thanks for the thoughts y’all.
          -Anon-I totally have several yards of navy and black wool suiting fabric sitting in my closet waiting for me to find a good pattern and good tailor.
          -MM-I don’t think I could do the tights thing; but then, if the judge doesn’t have a problem with my hijab, then pants should be ok too (though sometimes I think that connection between covering hair and covering arms and legs isn’t always made).
          -Eponine: It’s not the judges who would say something that I worry about, because then I would (presumably) have a chance to explain; it’s the judges who would say nothing and then hold it against my client that concern me. Anyway, if you do happen to find out where your friends find long skirt suits, please do share–I’m in the DC area and think you are too.

          • Yeah, I don’t personally like the tights idea, though some Muslimas I know say they are okay with it. My question more generally: do you ever wear dresses or skirts of any type to work? I have never found anything long that I think looks professional enough. I think that people would be understanding if your long dress/skirt is a bit “off” of expectations when they see the headscarf (so they understand the reason), I don’t wear hijab, so I think I’ll just look unprofessional and really out of date.

          • I am in DC, but sadly my friends are in the midwest. Still, if I think of it, I will ask if they get them at a national store.

            On a side note, and please don’t answer if the question makes you uncomfortable – do you argue in front of a judge or jury wearing hijab? I usually don’t wear any religious items (normally I wear a small religious necklace or ring) if I think it could possibly prejudice a client or case, and I just wondered if you’ve ever gotten, or suspected, a negative reaction. Obviously taking off hijab isn’t an option like taking off a necklace is.

          • Anonymous :

            MM-I do occasionally wear long skirts to work, but my offices have mostly been business casual and not particularly fashion forward. I agree with your point about hijab and expectations; I feel like I can, in a sense, get away with wearing things like long skirts or longer tops with pants that may look a bit unusual/”off expectations” without people thinking that I have no sense of style. As for finding professional skirts, I have most of mine made, though I do have a nice lined, wool, slightly A-line black one from JC Penney of all places!

            Eponine-This whole discussion is, at present, hypothetical for me because I’m still a 3L (and I really should be studying rather than reading Corporette). The point you’ve raised has been a concern of mine through law school. I’ve (kind of) specialized in an litigation heavy field, so (assuming I find a job) I expect to be before judges/juries on a regular basis. And beyond being the most kick-butt lawyer I can be so that folks forget whatever notions they might have about my appearance/religion, I don’t know how to deal with it.

          • The real-world advice in the comments on this blog will go far in educating you about your career, so don’t feel guilty. If you’re not already, make use of your Muslim Law Students Association (or contact the National MLSA) to get in touch with some women already in the work force, who can give you excellent advice about how to navigate the issue.

      • With skirts/hemlines, I’d say it’s all about how high they ride up when you sit. I’ve seen women tug hemlines when they’re seated in meetings – just don’t be that girl!

        I’m 5″4 but with muscular legs & calves – just below kneecap (paired with 2.5-3″ pumps) works best as my knee joint is never going to get slender enough for me to risk at/above knee length.

  7. Having worked fashion retail all through undergrad and law school, it makes me nauseated to think about dressing like a man for work everyday. *Unless that one judge likes the ladies in skirts… I’m gonna leave that one alone entirely :/
    Reading these types of articles about What Not To Wear, that seems to be practically the only solution to avoiding agonizing daily decisions regarding every aspect of an outfit. And, that solution makes my clothing completely devoid of personality. Soooo excited to be an attorney.

  8. Red is a tricky color. It took me one semester’s worth of procrastinating to find a red shoe that was subdued enough to wear as a summer associate. They have been my go-to shoes when I need a splash of color, but sadly they are now a little worn and in need of retirement. I wish that I had the foresight to buy multiples because now I don’t have the time to invest in finding a replacement.

    As a further note on shoes, make sure that your heels are comfortable to walk outside in. We often walked several blocks to lunch and it is hard to impress the partner you are speaking with when you fall flat on your face because your heel got stuck in the crack of the side walk. It is even more embarrassing/annoying to have your footwear brought up and the story re-told by your other (all male) summers when your hosts are deciding where to go for lunch and whether or not to drive. A wide heel is best.

  9. I have red, patent stiletto heels. I wear them with wide leg navy pants. I always get compliments. And know who I got the idea from? A successful partner at Patton Boggs in DC!

    • I dressed like a frumpy man for the first few years of my practice, until I started working for a couple of badass women partners who wore what they wanted and looked absolutely fabulous while doing a bang-up job. Thank goodness for them. There aren’t enough feminine, stylish, confident, powerful woman role models out there.

  10. Recalling a recent discussion here about dressing more like a law clerk than like a lawyer, I think it’s interesting that clothing from Express was mentioned in the ATL article/at the event. I, like many other readers here, did not know Express had work-appropriate clothing, which from what I understand they don’t, though some people seem to think that this clothing is appropriate for work.

    I didn’t realize how many people have trouble with these things, except when I actually thought about it, I have a much younger sister (age 22) that loves fashion and clothing, but she couldn’t dress appropriately for court/deposition/client meeting, etc. if her life depended on it. It’s not the same as the fashion you see in magazines or even on law-type TV shows. She’s always saying I should buy this top or that jacket, and she doesn’t understand why I say I can’t wear it to work. For people like her, the bottom line rule is to dress plain and boring because what’s “boring” to her is actually probably over-accessorized or just on the line of appropriate.

    But I will confess, I also have red shoes (dark red flats), I sometimes wear a pink shirt with my dark suit, and today I’m wearing a skirt suit without pantyhose (don’t worry, I was not in court!).

    • I recall this blog recommended Express, among other stores, for affordable suits for summer associates with a limited budget:

      http://corporette.com/2009/04/06/building-your-wardrobe-for-the-summer-internship/

      A lot of the clothes there are clubby, tacky, and loud, but couldn’t a few well-chosen, well-fitting pieces from the store find a place in a summer associates’ work wardrobe?

      • I think part of the issue with a store like Express is that if you don’t know what’s appropriate for work, you won’t know what pieces to buy there. And if you’re just starting out working, you probably don’t know what’s OK and should steer clear. If you’re unsure about what constitutes business casual, it’s much better to go to BR, J Crew or AT, where most things will be fine, than to Express, where you really have to know what works. If you’re confident in your ability to find appropriate clothes, then stores like Express (or even cheap stores like H&M) is a fine place to go.

      • I, for one, love my Express Editor pants. Granted, I purchased them a few years ago when the store was a little more conservative, but they have held up wonderfully and are the most comfortable pants I own. Personally, I think that as long as you abide by the general rule — not too tight or too low– they are totally acceptable to wear to work.

        As a side note, I also own full suits from Express (pants, skirts, jackets), and while I am not crazy about the one-button style jacket style anymore, the suits still look professional. If you can’t spend a lot of money, I would buy my suits from Express rather than say, Macy’s.

        • skirt-hating lady, esquire :

          Express Editor pants fit me more perfectly than any pants I’ve ever tried on, and they’ll have to pry them out of my cold dead hands (off my cold, dead butt?) I’m even thinking of taking them to a tailor to get replicated in a nicer fabric – few years ago Express wes making them in more interesting and varied fabrics, but recently they seem to be stuck in a rut.

    • I don’t really get why Express is such a big deal as in “don’t shop there!”

      I think Express suits are perfectly professional. I only several. I also don’t think Express is exactly budget-friendly if you buy suits full price, but they’re not super expensive and for someone on the small side (like me) the suits actually fit appropriately rather than hanging off of me.

      I realize that Express also has lots of glittery, sequined going-out clothes, but so what? There are also suits and blouses that are perfectly work appropriate, usually all grouped together. When shopping for work, buy suits, not going-out clothes. Seems pretty easy and obvious. J. Crew and Banana Republic and Ann Taylor Loft all have flowery dresses and summer shorts in the stores. If you’re shopping for work clothes, buy suits and blouses, regardless of where you shop. Do not buy summer dresses and shorts (from J. Crew or BR or ATL) or glittery club clothes (from Express). Seems easy enough.

      • It’s not just a matter of Express clothing being glittery. Their suits are cut to be sexy. For example, the skirts have are about 21 inches long while most suits are 23 inches long. They’re designed to be way above the knee. Obviously this is not a problem with pants since they’re hemmed.

  11. I recently served as a panelist for a similar event at a nearby law school, and I was horrified at the things I heard myself say about dressing for interviews and summer clerkships. “Err on the side of conservative; this is not the time to show your personality through the way you dress; if you’re remembered for what you wore to the interview, you’ve made a mistake; if you question whether something’s appropriate, then it’s probably not; remember that you’re dressing for the old-school partners who are making the hiring decisions, etc.” I felt like I was officially welcoming all of these beautiful young law students to the most boring profession on earth. But, really, I stand by this advice, and I think Kat’s rules are good ones. Now that I’ve practiced for years and know my office, I wear bright colors, prints, scoop necks, boots, etc. But not in court, never in court.

  12. Frustrated Academic :

    After reading the article (while wearing a black and white polka dot skirt, black flats, black shirt, and 3/4 length denim jacket–a smite worthy outfit according to this bunch), all I can focus on is:

    “Looking sexy in a law firm is disrespectful” – Mary Nicolau. Absolutely. No one should be able to see your cleavage and your skirt or dress should be knee-length and not too tight. The partner you’re working for is someone’s husband/father/boyfriend. Show some respect.

    Really? From that statement we learn (1) all partners are male, (2) all male partners are randy goats that cannot be trusted around an attractive woman, and (3) it rests with women to control their sexuality\body\means of dress so as not to tempt men (see number 2).

    Argh! I can’t tell if the commenter at the panel said that or if it is a blogger’s tongue-in-cheek take–either way, it makes me want to punch someone. Wrong on SO many levels!

    • That part really annoyed me also. IMHO, if all men are so easily distracted when a woman dresses in a way that shows her form, then: student readers, I think you know what to wear for your finals.

      (Joking, joking.)

      • Totally agree. I had a (female) partner tell me not to wear shirts that buttoned because all men would think about is unbuttoning them! Please. If that is true, its not my job to wear sacks so they don’t think about unbuttoning my shirt. I happen to have more faith in the fact that most men don’t notice what I wear most days.

    • While I will admit that my overall style is sarcastic, everything I wrote was said by one of the panelists, not made up to be humorous. And, the subtext to the whole discussion was that women should dress in a certain way to make men feel more comfortable letting them be in the profession (despite the fact that it is 2010). And YES Mary Nicolau made that comment and she seemed rather earnest in her message that if you are a woman, you better button up so as not to distract your male superiors. Bottom line, I agree with many of the rules in this article and I agree that is important for both women AND men to dress professionally. However, I think these discussions tend to focus disproportionately on women and reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes.

      • Its a disservice to both men and women to say to women “dress to hide that you’re a woman because men might get turned on if you don’t”. Women have been doing that for a long time and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. I don’t show cleavage in the office (and I have substantial cleavage which isn’t always easy to hide), but no one I work with mistakes me for a man. And I haven’t had any problems with that. I’m not saying its easy, but women are not going to get ahead in any profession if we pretend to be mini-men. We’ll only get ahead if we show our value as women.

        • Frustrated Academic :

          OMG! Well, A.N., I guess now we know why law firms are so slow to change, those on the inside are perpetuating the boys’ club mythos. Dress like a nun so that the male hierarchy does not realize you are a woman, get wigged out, and, what, push you onto the Mommy track?

          Did anyone bring up the point that maybe when firms recognize that an associate is more than a boxy navy suit, there can be some actual change in this profession and how it treats people?

          All I can say is that I am glad my path did not lead me to law firm life ;-)

  13. If a judge has a problem with me wearing a pantsuit rather than a skirt suit, and penalizes me because of it, that’s against his or her professionalism, not mine.

    • Actually, it is against your client.

      I think it is cr*p that some judges feel so strongly about pants vs skirts. When I rule the universe, it won’t matter. But for now, if I know my judge has a problem with pants, you are darn right I’ll be arguing in a skirt.

      • You and me both. I can make my political points on my own dime, with my own risk – not my client’s dime and my client’s risk.

        • It’s just terribly dated. Between the judges-not-liking-pant-suits-on-women (a look that became mainstream years ago!) and the let’s-have-a-drinky-poo-after-work, it’s like walking into a time warp. Thank goodness for corporate America, which has pretty much abandoned traditional business dress! My clients all dress casually and it helps with work/life balance — gone are the days when women wore skirted suits and then had to change to do anything with their families later on that evening.

          • No argument, but my job is still to do the best I can in representing my client. With a (thankfully increasing) minority of judges, that means I show up in a skirt suit. I made the blunder once as a young associate 3rd-chair in the case, and the (female) judge was openly hostile to me and my argument. Her hostility was, long story short, very detrimental to our client. She has since retired, so one less to worry about!

    • Yeah, it sucks that judges sometimes run their courtrooms like their private little fiefdoms, but as long as our clients are going to be the ones who suffer from rulebreaking . . .

      • It’s really a problem because as long as there’s one or two judges and partners out there like this everyone has to follow the rule to avoid damage. There’s no way to fight it because the fight on your own behalf hurts someone else, not just you. Furthermore, since it’s not an official rule in the local rules or something you can’t just campaign to have the rule changed- you are trying to change one individual, powerful person’s personal opinions. It’s not even a written rule, so you can’t just check before you go, you have to err on the side of caution even with judges who might not care either way. Arrrgh!

      • What about complaining (and petitions) to the state’s Judiciary Committee? Would that be effective?

        Additionally, Supreme Court precedent has established pantsuits as appropriate courtroom attire for women attorneys. If a judge won’t follow Supreme Court precedent in court attire, what does that say about that judge’s attitude towards following Supreme Court (or State Supreme Court, for that matter) precedent in other matters?

        • skirt-hating lady, esquire :

          Absolutely, I would complain to the state bar association if a judge made a comment about my pants. (As my user name suggests, I am radical on this point.) That’s because I see the skirt requirement as pure sexism. Ultimately, I don’t think “what’s best for the client” means that women attorneys have to capitulate to sexist or otherwise descriminatory demands. I mean, what if the judge demanded sexual favors? (Admittedly a very extreme example). Or in the example upthread, what if the judge was hostile to religious garb, does that mean a Muslim lawyer should take off her head covering? What if the judge just greatly preferred male lawyers, would that mean we would have to bow out and let a male associate get to argue the motion? Capitulating to discriminatory demands is not part of being a good lawyer, and it’s not part of our ethical duties towards our clients.

  14. I agree that a high ponytail is not the best idea for an office, but think that a low ponytail is totally acceptable. The same goes for a low bun. Also, both can be worn with accessories that add a pop of color or interest, such as a headband or hair clip/barette. These styles, if done neatly, are just as professional as wearing your hair down. I end up with a ponytail probably twice a week because (to me) it is a welcome alternative to waking up at 6 AM to do a blow-out.

    • Agreed. My hair, when down, is either ropy and hippie-ish looking (natural texture) or (if blown-out) kinda Friday-night looking. I look most professional with my hair back in a low ponytail or a up in a twist. It’s not even a question for me, despite all the times it’s raised in the blogosphere.

      • I have the same experience. I try to avoid the ponytails only because unless I blow dry straight, my hair is too wavy to look “professional” but a bun is generally my go to. If I wore it down, it would not at all work!

        • This kind of thinking just makes me want to scream. Your natural hair texture is just that–your natural texture.

          I am African American and I wear my hair in it’s natural kinky, coily, spirally texture and if any one tries to tell me that wearing my hair the way it grows out of my head is “unprofessional”, we are going to have some problems.

          Why are women forced to be so neurotic about their hair?

          • I totally understand the gripe, but I have hair almost down to my waist. And this is the length I choose to have. That would look problematic if I had pin straight hair. The fact that I have wavy, “messy” hair naturally looks even more problematic. I get being proud of one’s natural texture; but my natural texture + my chosen length = total bedroom hair , which is, sadly, problematic for my office.

    • Agreed that low ponytail can be acceptable. As a woman with super-curly hair, my hair gets bigger and bigger as the day goes on, regardless how much product is in it. I refuse to get it straightened just to be more ‘professional’. Often a low ponytail or a bun (high or low) is a much better option for work than a ginormous head of frizz.

    • I had a female coworker nail a girl for wearing a ponytail in an interview which I thought was interesting because both coworker and I have kind of crazy curly hair which can be distracting on its own. When mine was longer, I often pulled it into a low ponytail for interviews, moot court, etc. so it wasn’t a distraction and I didn’t need to spend time brushing it back behind my ears. I agree that a medium or high ponytail might not be a professional look for a lot of people but if the alternative is your hair being a distraction, put it in a low ponytail or bun and call it a day.

  15. Jill, I agree w/ everything you just said as well as Kat’s rules. I loved the ATL post – it was a welcome break from reading a boring deposition! Sometimes, the youngsters don’t use common sense (flip-flops at work? NO!) But the main rule is to know what’s acceptable in your office/city. and just so you don’t think I’m a total bore, I wore my pointy-toed red sling-backs w/ a kitten heel to work just yesterday!:)

  16. artemisia :

    The Corporette guidelines make sense to me, overall. Work isn’t the right place to be display legs, cleavage, tramp stamp.

    But “a local judge has openly expressed his preference for skirt suits”? Really? We should be mocking him, not catering to his stone-aged attitudes. The taxpayers are paying him to worry about the particulars of the case, not the fashion decisions of counsel. Likewise, companies aren’t paying lawyers to fuss about nail polish colors or whether they can see someone’s toes.

    “Overall, I hated this article. Of course one shouldn’t display underwear, etc. But I think that worrying too much about what a man might think is the opposite of what women need to do in the workplace.” I agree with Robin.

  17. BigLaw Associate :

    What this shows is that there are two completely styles of dress. One for interviews/court/first week on the job and another for regular office wear. In an interview or in court you want the focus to be on your brain/your client’s case, not on your clothes. Wear boring conservative and well-tailored clothes. But the office is totally different. In the office you want to wear the uniform, but also be yourself.

    In my office (I work in a large law firm in NYC) it is completely appropriate to wear bright colors, and even bright shoes (I’m looking at the patent red pumps under my desk right now) so long as the overall outfit is put together and professional. Likewise, it is fine to have some personality with your jewelry (though I think it’s better to play with necklaces than earrings that are dangly). Obviously you don’t want to have clothing be too tight (though not because it might tempt those partners, but because it’s not professional) but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look female or try to cover up your figure. There is absolutely no point in not dressing like yourself and showing some personality at work.

    As for hem lines, I’m very conservative. I have heard people talk negatively about a woman in my class who regularly wears dresses and skirts two inches above the top of her knees. It might just be because that is combined with no pantyhose and tall heels, but you don’t even want to get near there. At the knee (top or middle) looks good on everyone, so why push it higher than that for work? Besides, when it is higher than the top of the knee it gets really high when you sit down.

    So my advice is 1) know your office – look at senior and mid-level associates since partners have more leeway in how they dress and 2) don’t aim for high fashion for an interview or in court.

  18. I agree with the know your office rule – go for the most conservative approach first and then modify based on more senior women around you. That being said, my office is on the more casual end of business casual (for NYC) and I own patent red leather open toe heels with a peep toe. They pretty much break all of the rules but like another commenter above, I generally wear them with wide-leg navy pants which tones the shoes down considerably.
    As for the ponytail thing – please. Most of my day is spent sitting at my desk staring at a computer or hunched over documents. I grew my hair out again so that I can wear a ponytail to keep my hair out of my face. As long as it is neat, I don’t see the problem. And honestly, in both my current firm and my prior very white shoe conservative firm, nearly every associate who had hair long enough, pulls it back into a pony tail at some point. And I know a few partners who do so as well.

  19. I find it hard to believe the midwest is more conservative than the east coast in courtroom dress (male and female). Some of the “rules” espoused have never been followed in the state courtrooms I preside over. I have never, ever heard a male judge make a negative remark about a woman in a pants suit, in fact that is all I and my female colleagues wear. Federal Court tends to be more formal than state court but I still can’t see the ban on pantsuits.

    • just curious…why do you find it hard to believe that the midwest is more conservative than the east coast?

      • Having worked in both midwestern states (including Chicago) and DC, I can say the midwest is definitely more casual. I think that’s what HAW meant by conservative.

        • I agree that Chicago is more casual than DC in terms of office attire and even in terms of attire in many of the courtrooms in state court (state court attire can be a little hit-or-miss). But federal court in Chicago is likely where the skirt-suit rules originate–I had an experience 10 years ago where I saw a female litigator in the case preceding mine questioned as to whether she didn’t know she needed to appear in court that day because she was wearing a suit with pants.

          • I clerked in the southwest and had to wear pantyhose and a skirt even in chambers. The judge was originally from the midwest, though, as am I.

          • That rule’s gone the way of the dodo, even for arguing in front of the Seventh Circuit.

            Funny thing is, I was under the impression that the judges fixated on skirt suits were mostly in the south.

    • From what I’ve seen, most midwest firms are still “suits only,” while a lot of D.C. and NY firms have gone to business casual, and a lot of California firms are pretty much anything goes.

      • Just because the firms have gone casual, doesn’t mean the courts have, especially south of DC. I’m on the east coast and I can wear fun shoes (red patent leather, even :)), bright tops, and funky jewelry (of course not all at the same time) to the office but you better believe I would get a talking to from the partners if I wore that to court because they know some local judges expect skirt suits.

  20. Common Sense :

    We, as female professionals, have a duty to disabuse ourselves and others of the notion that we are dressing for an audience.

    No, we do not need to dress conservatively to “show respect” for male partners, associates, judges or any other individual unable to keep their thoughts out of the gutter.

    We should feel inclined to dress conservatively to show respect for ourselves and our careers.

  21. Anonymous :

    I think the most important part of Kat’s advice is to know your office. As is discussed in the comments on pretty much every post, some things are appropriate for some offices and not for others. Every office I’ve worked in has had a different culture and a different notion of “appropriate” dress:
    -pre-law school non-profit: technically business casual, but anything except jeans would fly;
    -federal court internship: jacket everyday, but pants, bare legs, colored shoes, prints, statement jewelry all ok (esp. if you weren’t expected to be in the courtroom);
    -federal executive agency internship: business casual, jeans ok on Friday;
    -Congressional agency internship: jacket everyday but Friday, no hose, but somewhat conservative on color and jewelry;
    -small plaintiff’s firm: anything (including jeans), unless in court/deposition/client meeting.

    • Anonymous :

      that should say that no hose was ok at the Congressional agency.

    • You are 100% on point.

      I’d also add that there can be slight geographical variations. A judge in NYC might not blink at a female attorney in a pink shirt with her hair down. I’m not sure, but I used to appear before Southern judges who seemed a little more formal. I usually opted for a dark skirt suit/hair bun/white collared shirt/minimal makeup on those occasions.

  22. Those rules work well when you’re interfacing with courts and the public, but they break down in many offices. It would be a bad idea to follow all those rules, then end up consistently overdressing or outdressing your colleagues. Careful observance of interoffice culture is key.

    For example:

    A young attorney landed a federal job after several (stellar) years in private practice. The first day, he wore a suit and tie to show respect for himself and the job. Even though he observed fellow attorneys sticking to “casual” or “business casual” all week long, he decided to keep wearing the tie.

    By Friday, the most tactful supervisor in the office was dispatched with a simple but firm message: Sorry, but your ties are making everyone uncomfortable.

    When it comes to day-to-day office fashion, here’s a strategy that hasn’t tanked my career yet:

    1) Identify a senior female colleague on an admirable career trajectory;
    2) Observe her unspoken dress code;
    3) Try to imagine what she might have been wearing at your age; and
    4) Shop and outfit yourself accordingly.

    • North Shore :

      That happened to my husband, and I think it’s a shame. He’s not young — he’s in his 40s, and he just prefers to wear a suit. It’s a professionalism thing, plus he has a military officer background and is just more comfortable in a uniform or suit. He landed at a federal agency where casual is the norm, and was receiving derogatory comments about his wearing a suit. He now wears jeans and sweatshirts and looks like a messenger rather than a federal attorney, and he hates it, but the casual culture enforcers are happy.

      • Sorry about your husband’s new look. The guy in my story is also a former military officer. Federal attorneys can lose some face over the enforced casual style.

        After work, the inattentive cashier at my local (inner-city) supermarket typically sees my suit-less state and asks, out of habit, if I’ll be paying with food stamps.

        One day, I flexed out for an appointment with my elderly doctor. He asked if jeans were the norm for mid-week in my office. I tried to explain that our Mondays are basically the same as our Fridays. His eyebrow raised, probably involuntarily, before changing the subject.

        Sigh.

      • Can’t he wear slacks and a button down and call it a happy medium?

        I would hate working in a casual workplace. I really hate feeling sloppy, and I don’t like jeans.

        • oh my god i have to COMPLETELY disagree. I worked in a casual workplace for 6 months and every day I wore jeans and sneakers and it was amazing. Now I have all these nice jeans that I look wistfully at as I’m assembling my dress, cardigan and heels every morning.

    • This happened at my clerkship. I knew that chambers was a jeans and t-shirt sort of place and so I didn’t wear a suit my first day, but I did wear skirts or dresses until Wednesday when I was told to stop it because I was making everyone else look bad. :)

      • I work in a software company with a bunch of sloppy programmers. I dressed down for work (jeans and not-so-nice top) for 2 years before I finally felt like I was in a position to dress the way I want. I now wear skirts and dresses a few times a week, never shorter than 1-2 inches above the knee, and while I don’t feel like it’s endangering my career, it certainly does attract a lot of unwanted attention. Grrr, I wish I could have a job like the rest of you where fitting in doesn’t involve dressing like a slob!

        • I’ve been told before to dress down because I was making other people look bad. Screw them. If my wearing grey slacks and a button down with kitten heels makes you jeans wearing ass-hanging out barefoot ass uncomfortable, so be it.

          • Go you – the women here dress so badly – think kmart catalog looks. I’m happiest wearing dresses and that’s what I’ll wear. I’ll never forget the heads turning when people heard me walking in heels – got the other women to start wearing heels too =).

  23. I save my crazy shoes for pants – that way they peek out a little, but aren’t too in-your-face. Like C and so many others have said, though, all of this is about your particular office – what worked in my old firm wouldn’t work in the firm I’m at now, and vice versa.

  24. I was at that event. It was interesting and informative. What I mainly learned is not to trust anything that “image advisors” say, ever. I don’t think those 2 bloggers are giving their own personal opinions, but rather they’re paraphrasing what was said at the event. One was being straightforward, while the other was quite tongue-in-cheek.

    In general, what the panel advised in terms of fit was pretty accurate. On all the other topics, I would only follow their advise for interview, b/c they basically said “safe, conservative and boring.”

    For court, one thing that was not mentioned is the culture of the court. Just like business formal and business casual can vary drastically from one workplace to another, even in the same geographic area, so can appropriate court attire vary from court to court in the same area. What’s appropriate in federal court, or state court law division, or state court criminal division or federal administrative court or state administrative court can vary drastically, even in the same city. Observing your environment and matching your overall look to what you see in court is very important. Following those fashion “rules” that career services office give you, not so important.

    I see a wide variety of attire on women attorneys and judges from one court to another. Men vary too, though not as drastically. My two cents: be confident in what you wear. Once you’ve decided to leave the house in a particular outfit, take pride in your choice and own it.

  25. To understand these “rules”, you have to understand Chicago, and the way women dress in Chicago, which is very different from the way women dress in, say, Boston, Philadelphia, or San Francisco, to name a few. Chicago women dress plain and a little bit drab. Maybe that’s because in Chicago there is always enough excitement to go around without adding to it through clothing. I think these rules are probably just great for Chicago, but definitely not so good for Tampa, San Diego, or either of the Portlands!

    • No offense, but I am not sure how there being enough excitement in Chicago translates to drab clothing. There’s plenty of excitement in NYC, and we don’t tend to go for drab or plain around here :)

    • divaliscious11 :

      I certainly don’t dress drab, and I know lots of attorney’s in Chicago who manage not to look drab eithter…

      • Frustrated Academic :

        As a Chicago-gal, I have to respectfully disagree.

        While we layer out of self-preservation for many months of the year, between May and September we are seriously fierce.

    • Having seen the way women dress in both Philadelphia and Chicago, there are differences but I don’t think they have anything to do with dressing plain or drab. In any event, in Chicago, there are months at a time when every woman you see on the street may look plain and drab because all you can see is overcoat, hat, scarf, gloves, etc. But look out for late spring and summer–after months of weather that can certainly be described as drab, you will see lots of women looking anything but plain walking around the Loop.

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