Workplace Fashion’s Gone Casual – Should Lawyers Be Joining the Trend?

Recently, a local legal event featured a lawyer as its speaker. The speech was intelligent and professional, delivered with confidence and poise.

But I have it on good information that many lawyers in attendance ignored the speaker’s material and performance. They focused on his clothes: blue jeans and a button-down top.

The outfit was not a crime. (Maybe a misdemeanor, depending on how many lawyers make up the jury.)

A lot of lawyers in attendance reportedly thought the speaker broke an important tradition by not wearing the sacred uniform of suit and tie. Others were bemused or distracted or felt a touch of envy. Everyone had a strong reaction, which was unexpected.

It’s strange, because we all know full well that the rules of attire are changing. Companies have shifted away from formality.

I know, because when I ride the train and walk around Chicago, I don’t see many suits anymore. The anything-goes trend has taken over.

Will this trend spill into the legal world? Has it already? It depends on where you live. I’ve heard that in Silicon Valley, a suit on a lawyer is a red flag. It signifies being out of touch with client values and expectations – a code defined by the tech revolution and its culture of innovation.

By contrast, in New York or Europe, the issue of attire is business as usual. You see a lot of formality due to the sheer volume of legal and financial firms in those locales.

In versatile, down-to-earth Chicago, law firms have become less formal. But less formal doesn’t mean NOT formal. When you walk near the Daley Center, you see more suits than anywhere else in the city.

Here, to a great extent, the lawyer’s tradition of formal dress is alive and well.

That’s a good thing.

The legal profession is important and consequential; it warrants formality. This is particularly the case in a courtroom environment, where attire can affect how citizens view and respect the legal process.

From a career standpoint, our choice of dress is a powerful marketing tool. This is true, even in Silicon Valley, where the branded look and feel is different but the message is the same. Donning appropriate clothing tells our clients and the rest of the legal world that we mean business.

It’s important to look the part if you want to cultivate a successful brand. Formal attire, in Chicago at least, is still table stakes for an attorney or law firm. It shows your clients that you take their cases seriously.

Another benefit of formal attire is it advertises that you’re a lawyer. Example: When I go to a general networking event, as soon as I enter the room I can pick out the lawyers. Our suits are a dead giveaway. Pretty soon, strangers come up to me asking if I’m an attorney. The next thing you know, we’re exchanging business cards.

Of course, there are times when a suit isn’t needed. Like when I’m going to the office but have no court or meetings scheduled.

Sounds pretty standard, but it wasn’t always that way. Growing up, I remember my father, an attorney, leaving the house every morning in a business suit. No matter what he had planned that day, he wore the uniform.

Times have changed. We’ve all strayed from tradition in our way. But some things never change: We’re still attorneys, we do important work.

While many industries have gone casual, formal attire is part of who we are as lawyers. In a sense, that puts us in the rarefied company of heart surgeons, military generals, police officers, even the president, none who could perform their life-changing work sporting jeans.

OK, maybe heart surgeons wear jeans under their scrubs.

Look, if you want to wear jeans under your suit pants – where clients and colleagues can’t see them – go ahead, be my guest.

While we’re on the subject of strange wardrobe behavior, if you do choose to go casual, it doesn’t mean you can wear any old thing.

How you dress on casual days speaks volumes about your judgment, self-awareness and how in-touch you are with the times. These are important factors in how lawyers present their image to clients and colleagues.

Closing argument: If you’re a lawyer speaking or presenting to an audience full of lawyers, wear formal attire. People will focus on what you’re saying instead of what you’re wearing.

Here’s a rule of thumb in Chicago: In today’s less-traditional times, when in doubt, look the part, wear a suit.

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