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Self-regulate your dress

David Paul’s Field Notes
|Written By David A. Paul
Self-regulate your dress

The legal profession is full of important traditions. Since the 1400s both the bar and bench have engaged in customs regarding attire. While today these customs are still recognized by the robes worn by the judges and justices, for the most part lawyers have much more liberty about what they wear in the office and at the courthouse.

Professional fashion is no longer stifled by dark shades of grey and plain white shirts. There has never been more trendy business attire — men will now don stripes with plaid! In addition, more liberal dress codes are being allowed at the office. Many firms now have casual Fridays or only require business attire when meeting clients. These fashion expansions can be positive in as far as they allow lawyers to express their unique approach and creativity; at the same time, however, there still needs to be some business sense to balancing trend with tradition.

The purpose of this article is not to tell you how to dress but to stress the importance and value of dressing well. Readers may well ask, what is appropriate dress for a lawyer? For what it’s worth, in my opinion a lawyer’s clothing is appropriate when it communicates competence, professionalism, and respect.

Professional attire is about communication. Dale Carnegie, a master of communication, said that there are four ways — and only four ways — in which we have contact with the world: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it. In other words, clothes talk, and in the competitive world of practising law — while appearances are not everything — dressing neatly, professionally, and appropriately may, for a number reasons aid, in success.

Firstly, dressing professionally and appropriately leads to good first impressions. As the saying goes, you only get to make a first impression once. And it usually only takes a few seconds. That impression, however, can be powerful and long lasting. Recovering from a bad first impression can be difficult. In a busy law practice, you never know who or when you are going to be meeting someone new — while at the office or out for lunch. It may be a new client, a potential employer or employee, or a possible business associate. These people may form their initial impression of you based simply on how you look. Knowing this, it certainly helps to always dress neatly and professionally while on the job.

Secondly, while dress has little to do with how good a lawyer one might be, dressing appropriately and professionally can help inspire confidence and encourage respect for our advice and services in clients and potential clients — thereby enhancing our success with marketing and business and professional development.

Many clients want their lawyer to look like a lawyer, particularly if their lawyer is representing them in a courtroom or some other public forum. The importance of dress to inspiring confidence may be even more significant for the young lawyer who can often be wrongly perceived as looking too young to do the job. Like senior lawyers, young lawyers also want people to value their opinions and be taken seriously.  For the young lawyer, dressing professionally and looking crisp, polished, and authoritative can help mitigate against the perception of inexperience — and at the same time create some competitive advantage.

Thirdly, dressing well shows respect for others including your clients, your colleagues, and the judges who you appear before. Showing respect by dressing appropriately can strengthen your message by helping your audience hear, accept, and value what you are saying. Your hard work and quality of advice is influenced by how you present yourself. Conversely, dressing inappropriately can be distracting to those you are communicating with. Inappropriate dress — such as dress that is loud, over the top, revealing, or untidy — can also be uncomfortable for clients, judges, and other lawyers.

Fourthly, dressing well can improve self-discipline. The transformative effect of dressing professionally can be powerful and effective. If you look good, you feel good. And when you feel good you’re more productive. As with an actor in costume, clothes can help you “get into the role.”

Finally, dressing professionally helps lawyers reflect the quality and value of their services. Dressing professionally also helps reflect our pride as members of an honorable and noble profession.

So while there is no need to go back to the days of robes and powdered wigs, there are benefits to self-regulating our dress just as we self-regulate our profession. Mark Twain was right when he said “the finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but, of course, society demands something more than this.” So if you’re wearing something, wear it well.

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