Emergency Reader Mail: What to Wear to a Conference?

what-to-wear-to-a-conferenceAh, the perennial question: what to wear to a conference?

I’m a 1L and I’m going to a one day “retreat” with several prominent speakers/panelists this coming Saturday at the (NYC) bar association – its from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm if that makes a difference. I’m mainly going because I am interested in the topic, and maybe a little networking since this is the area that I plan to practice in. I’ve never been to one of these events and have no idea how people dress for this – suit, dress, or business casual skirt/pants??? Should I wear (low-ish) heels or are flats ok? Please help!

In our (limited) experience, conference dress can vary pretty widely, from full-on suits to jeans. Our best advice, as always, is thus: call the group planning the conference or retreat, and ask how they recommend you dress. Hopefully, the planners will have attended previous incarnations of the event and can recommend from experience. (And if not, hey, at least you can point the finger at somebody.)

Our default “we have no idea what to wear” for this might include a nice pair of slacks, office-worthy shoes (either flats or heels are fine, but no sneakers), a blouse or t-shirt with short sleeves, and a blazer.  (You might try one like the blazer pictured above:  Calvin Klein Ponte Jacket, available at Bloomingdale’s for $129.)  With this outfit, you’ll look professional but still comfortable, and if you feel too dressed up you can always take the blazer off. (We might pack a sweater or a scarf in case there’s crazy air-conditioning, as well.)

Readers, what would you wear to the conference?  How do you decide what to wear?


  1. If it is a conference held annually, google it and see if there are photos from prior years so you can see what people wore.

  2. I say overdress rather than underdress. I went to an ABA conference that specified “business casual” on the invitation. Everyone there was in black suits and pointy heels. Boy did I feel weird in my taupe pants and sweater with button up shirt. Kat’s advice re bringing a blazer is great. I never travel without a black blazer anymore.

    • This is good advice. I recently attended a conference that also specified “business casual” when I called to ask. I wore a suit dress with a blazer I could wear if necessary, and I’m glad I did. The majority of people in attendance were men in dark colored three piece suits, those who adhered to the business casual dress code stood out like a sore thumb. I really wish the person who gave me the information would have been more clear, like “we require business casual, but most people tend to dress in…”

    • I agree — always bettr to be over dressed than under dressed!

  3. Also note that the official dress code might not be the same as the perceived dress code. I go to a conference every year where the dress code is business casual, but somewhere around 70% of the participants come from other countries, and the non-U.S. lawyers always wear suits. Every day. All day. So if you’re in business casual, you can actually feel under-dressed in the sea of suits. My solution is to wear a suit, but do a funky top or shoes, so I don’t look court-ready, but I also don’t feel completely out of place.

  4. I’ve been to so many conferences and most people are in suits. I always wear one, but one that’s comfortable, with super-low heels or flats, and pretty much anything underneath as a shell under the blazer (no need for a button-down). This has universally worked for any conference – whether it’s ABA, NYCBar, etc. — been to them all.

    • Good call on the short heels/flats. I learned the hard way that even my comfortable heels are not comfortable after a conference.

  5. I’ve seen it all at City Bar events in New York. I used to wear suits to weekday CLEs–same thing I would have worn to work–until I realized that all-day CLEs in NYC usually mean casual dress, up to and including jeans.

    But with ABCNY events, as in life generally, better to be overdressed than underdressed, especially if you plan to hobnob, er, network. I’d go with a jacket over a pencil skirt, with heels and pearls.

    • I think it is doing this 1L a disservice to even hint that it is ok to come in jeans to ANY networking function, CLE panels or conferences.

      • Practicing attorney here, and I’ve worn jeans to every CLE function I’ve attended. It probably varies by location and practice area, but I’ve never felt underdressed.

      • That’s a bit patronizing. Jojo is telling her experience; it’s up to the 1L to decide for herself.

  6. a lot of people go to CLEs for purposes of attracting clients, and wear suits whatever the invite says.

  7. I agree that it’s best to be overdressed rather than underdressed. I usually default to dark pants and heels with a button down shirt under a sweater or cardigan, but it never hurts to have a blazer.

  8. As with many things, it depends. If your presenting in any fashion or doing lots of committee work and such, dress up. If you’re there to just listen and learn, dress down. Still, I like the idea of a back-up suit/outfit.

  9. On a similar topic – does anyone have advice about what is appropriate for a “retreat”? The firm at which I am clerking this summer is doing a firmwide retreat for three days, and I am wondering what would be appropriate. I know there will be “activities”, it is in a semi-resort, and there will also be speakers throughout the weekend – a mix of business and casual. The event is in Texas in June, so it will also be very, very hot! Should I pack a suit just in case? Bring dress pants and khakis? Or are these the sort of events to which it is OK to bring jeans? Also, there is a pool and one of the activities is rafting down the river – I definitely won’t be packing a bikini (!) but I am wondering what type of cover-up might be most appropriate. Thanks for any ideas!

    • When I was a summer associate back in the day (this was 2000-1) the firm retreat meant very casual clothes (shorts, tshirts), with one big dinner at which we wore floral dresses and blazers/ties/khakis, sort of like the equivalent of a more casual wedding. But this was in New England, so ymmv. For rafting I would bring shorts and tank/tshirt in quick dry material, since you may get wet. You could wear a 1 piece swimsuit underneath if you want. Also, ask other people at the firm (midlevel associates are a good bet) what they will be wearing.

    • Not sure if this is your situation, but my firm held the summer kickoff (mine was in LA) before everyone started work — hard to find anyone to ask! For the speakers/daytime presentations, everyone was in business casual (men in dress slacks and shirts, women in skirts/slacks and shirt or sweater set. Everyone was jealous of the smarties who brought pashminas for the highly overactive A/C).

      For the “activities” everyone relaxed — in a conservative way — sundresses/polo shirts for dinner, flip flops and skirts/shorts for an afternoon “game” of some sort. You should probably overpack by a few outfits, (plus it’s an easy way to strike up a conversation during a break towards the end of the presentation mode — “so, what do you think everyone will be wearing to this?”)

      UGH to work-related water activities. Maybe a one-piece and some quick-dry athletic shorts?

    • At my company’s retreat, people tend to dress business formal for events with outside speakers or guests, business casual (leaning toward casual) for employee-only events or training, and very casual for the social events. I expect this is highly firm-specific, though, so you might just want to ask a female associate what she plans to wear.

      • Oh, and I’d wear a one-piece or tankini, and wrap a sarong around my waist. I also have this sort of tube-top dress that pulls on easily over a swimsuit if I want more coverage.

        • For the rafting portion, I’d wear a one-piece and board shorts and a t-shirt or rash guard.

    • It’s three days, so pack heavy. Take a suit, just in case. Take dressy non-suit clothes, just in case. Take business casual, just in case. Take casual-casual, just in case. If you’ve taken enough items with you, you can always adjust your wardrobe up or down, depending on how others dress.

  10. To a NYC event like this, I’d wear a suit–pants or skirt would be fine. Maybe something where you could take the jacket off if you felt overdressed, but every time I go to something in NYC and don’t wear a suit, I feel very underdressed. At the very least, the speakers will all be in suits. I also second the idea of a scarf or shawl that fits into your bag, but you can use if it’s cold.

    For firm retreat, I’d definitely ask around and see what others have done or get photos. Those can vary so widely. Our firm does a 1/2 day one where women wear capris and short sleve or sleveless shirts and sandals.

  11. Pantsuit with flats will be fine. I also find there’s some variation between CLE held during working hours during the week (where even if the invite says “Business Casual”, most people are either coming from or going to the office at some point in the day) and on weekends, where a nice button down, cardigan, skirt, and smart shoes wouldn’t look out of place.

    I agree with the genral sentiment that its better to be dressed up than down, though.

  12. This is the crim law thing at CitiBar? I usually go most years. The clothes range from what you would wear to court, down to blue jeans and sneakers.

    Your best shot on the formal side, is an unmatched pant suit. Blazer + dress pants + cotton shirt+ dress shoe

    Your best shot on the casual side is almost the same but:

    Dark jeans + navy blazer +either preppy cotton man collar shirt (like an umbrella stripe) or a very plain (man collar type) silk blouse + dress shoes or really fancy loafers


    Nobody will say anything, but the only people who can get away with wearing sneakers to these thig are Judge Orenstien and his wife. His red Converse Chuck Taylors are part of his personal “brand”. Anybody else –not having a good excuse (like a broken leg or that they are known to come by bike–in which case you better have a bicycle helmet under your arm), just looks clueless and you will rarely see them as part of the “working the room” crowd.

    You bag should be professional looking, but could be accompanied by canvas tote if you are going the preppy jeans route.

    The presenters usually dress as if they are going to court. The judges in the audience usually go some combination of blazer and slacks or blazer and skirt.

    The law school professors, wear what you see them wear at school, only maybe a tiny bit more casual or a tiny bit more excentric (you know, jackets with crewel embroidery or ethnic jewelry or wacky sweaters).

    Most of the regulars know each other, but don’t be intimidated, everybody loves to fuss over law students.

  13. Oh, and one other thing, unless you know your way around the CitiBar building, you won’t be taking the elevator–they hide it. The stairs up to the Great Hall (where they hold the crim law retreat) are worn marble with a serious dip.

    Wear shoes that will make it easy to navigate those stairs. Do NOT wear very high heels, you will break your neck. Unless you know where the elvator is, in which case heel height is up to you.

    I would avoid anything funky. You want these folks to see you as the perfect child they wish they had raised themselves, so they might envision themselves mentoring you.

    Enjoy, it’s agreat event

  14. My standard for events like this? Black pants, nice blouse, and a black jacket that I can put on to make it a suit in case everyone there is wearing one. And if they aren’t, I hang the jacket up/shove it in my bag/ etc., so I’m more dressed down. This has worked for me no matter the dress specified, because different groups in different areas seem to have slightly different definitions of “business casual” and “casual.”

  15. By the way, I found this Calvin Klein blazer in dark grey at Filene’s Basement, for a third of the price – worth looking for it (or something similar) at a discount store. Can’t wait to wear mine at the office – and perhaps eventually, a conference!

    • Yes – Filene’s is the home of the $70 Tahari suit. Love it.

      • The Filene’s closest to me closed. :( However, there is also a store called Annie Sez – not sure it it’s a big chain – that sells Tahari suits for $80-$100, and stocks some of the same workwear that Filene’s used to have.

  16. I almost always wear a little black dress with sleeves, a cardigan, pumps and pearls to an event where I don’t know what to wear. It’s an outfit that’s just as appropriate for cocktails as it is for a law firm.

  17. – Cute but flat shoes (because you will be walking, and you want to be able to keep up without spraining an ankle or hobbling the next day)
    – Large handbag that will fit a cardigan – The cardigan is essential because (assuming it’s a nice one – no schmattes!) conferences are often held in over air conditioned venues, and it can dress up a more casual top
    – Black pants – they are the ultimate neutral and if you spill lunch on yourself, a quick stop in the ladies’ room hides the damage
    – Interesting jewelry – will dress up a short sleeve top that’s fairly plain – make sure that your jewelry does not make noise when you walk.

  18. I would wear skinny jeans, flats and a very good hiplength weatherproof nylon jacket with a gathered type of waistline. I would say always undredress, don’t overdress. This is a good place for those ballerina flats. Wear a nice watch, and carry a good tailored bag.

  19. I attend 3-4 conferences a year. Rarely do I take slacks any more, or pantsuits. I find that dresses with blazers are the best option. You can make them very dressy with dark hose and lovely jewelry, and then remove the blazer and change shoes for the dinners/receptions that may occur in the evening. Agree with the other commenters that you should have an outer layer (cardigan or blazer) that can be kept on if the situation is more formal or stashed if not. Often I don’t have time to go back to my hotel room and change, so a big work bag in which I can stash my blazer is essential!

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