What Are You Wearing?

On Sunday Malum in Se wrote about running into a prominent criminal defense attorney at the local Walmart. On Sunday afternoon, the lawyer was wearing khakis, a long sleeve shirt and a tie. Alright, you might say, he had probably just come from church. Or maybe brunch with his mother.

But this Prominent Lawyer gave himself away when he commented on Malum’s own attire: “Mr. PD, perception is reality. I envy you at guys at the PD’s office being able to run around town in sweat shorts and a tee shirts.” PL was wearing khakis and a tie to Walmart on the Gulf Coast on Sunday afternoon because he had to.

(A digression: pity those who are unable to discern metaphor from reality. They might think that perception actually is reality, or that the “war on terror” is an actual war. A criminal-defense lawyer who doesn’t recognize a metaphor is severely intellectually crippled [metaphor], and probably shouldn’t have people’s freedom in his hands [metaphor].)

Occasionally I see a mention in the blawgosphere about how we lawyers must dress like lawyers. For example, Tom Kane’s Dressing Professionally is Smart Marketing in his Legal Marketing Blog. The theory is that the clients expect it and are more likely to hire us if we wear business attire.

John Remsen, Jr., whose Enough is Enough: Lawyers Should Look Like Lawyers post Tom linked to in his Dressing Professionally post, wrote:

I don’t know about you, but if I’m paying north of $350 an hour for legal services, I want my talented, high-priced lawyer to look like a talented, high-priced lawyer….in a suit. Crisp, polished and professional. The way he (or she) looks and presents himself (or herself) has a huge impact on how I perceive his (or her) skills and capabilities. That’s just the way it is.

John makes a persuasive case. Legal marketing is his business, and I’m prepared to concede that he’s probably right. Yet I’m not about to change my style. I have a closet full of nice suits, and I’ll wear them to court, but one of my priorities when I get back to the office is to get into jeans and a t-shirt as quickly as possible. I work smarter in jeans and a t-shirt.

Maybe I’d get more clients if I kept the suit on at the office, but I don’t need more clients. Maybe I’d get a better class of clients, but I like the class of clients I get. I don’t really think I want clients who feel that a fancy suit makes a better lawyer; their expectations might not be closely linked to reality. My clients usually have chosen me over cheaper lawyers wearing fancier suits in fancier offices.

Dressing down may convey its own salutary message to the potential client — “this lawyer doesn’t need to impress me,” or “this is the guy I want at my side in a real fight” or even “this guy is all about his craft” — all of which are true. Or maybe my air of competence and trustworthiness simply outweighs my sartorial shortcomings.

There are lots of good reasons to wear a tie on Sunday afternoon. But being a lawyer is not one of them.

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0 responses to “What Are You Wearing?”

  1. A suit in the office – ok (we are currently having dicussions about that). A suit when meeting clients – for sure. But smart dress for going shopping?!

    If I meet clients when I’m out and about and all I can do is worry that they’re judging me on my dress then the only issue is who is sadder – me or them? Truly America is a strange land…

  2. As a dying breed in the legal community (bio: 45, licensed for 21 years), I’m embarrassed by the current state of dress in the legal community.

    How hard is it to wear a suit and a tie? Good lord. If that is such a burden, how can anyone expect you to bust your ass in other areas? Wearing a suit is hard? Hell, prepping for a trial is hard. Research is hard. Work is hard.

    It’s just a matter of discipline and respect for the profession. Not much of that anymore.

  3. Thanks for the comment, anon. I don’t know that anyone is saying that wearing a suit is hard.

    The times, they are achangin’; there’s no question about that.

  4. I will agree with the anonymous post about wearing a suit. Of course I think anyone who claims to be a “lawyer” shouldn’t walk into a courtroom without being properly dressed. Unfortunately, at least in Fort Worth, proper courtroom attire often means jeans and a polo shirt. I don’t think that’s right.

    On the other hand, I’m with you about the rest of the time. If I go into the office on a day I have nothing set in court, I’m usually in jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe even flip flops. Because it’s comfortable, and because if I’m comfortable, I can focus on what I’m doing. I’ll even meet with clients dressed like that. They’ve commented just as you did that I certainly not trying to impress anyone and that I must be pretty good to be willing to meet people like that.

  5. Maybe PL enjoyed wearing a tie on Sunday afternoon. Maybe PL was meeting, or had met a client and was honoring the client by getting dressed-up. I think we are reading too much into PL’s comment about Malum’s attire. Moreover, how did PL get to be a PL anyway? Did he wear sweat pants to his meetings with clients? I doubt it. Did he honor clients and show respect for them by dressing appropriately? I bet he did. Our dress reflects our attitude. Sometimes we just need to dress nicely out of respect for others.


  6. Maybe it’s just because I’m an undergraduate, but the few times I’ve walked into a lawyer’s office, I felt out-of-place and uncomfortable.

    If I were considering hiring a criminal defender, and a prospective attorney met me in a t-shirt and jeans (*especially* if it were a funny t-shirt), I’d feel much more at ease – and among other factors, my comfort level is an important consideration, if I’m to work closely with some person I’ve never met, who’s twice my age (or more), and depend on him/her to protect me in court. (Not that clothes alone determine my comfort level with an attorney.)

    I certainly wouldn’t disqualify an attorney for wearing a suit – or even hold it against him/her. I just note that at first glance, there’s a substantial cultural gap between an undergraduate and an attorney, and clothing can be one way to help bridge that gap.

    Obviously, wearing a suit to court, or to Wal-Mart, are separate matters entirely. And not that I’m encouraging anyone to go overboard – shirt/shoes are still required (flip-flops are 100% acceptable, Shawn).

  7. Thank you all for the comments.

    Stephen, if he liked wearing a tie to Walmart on Sunday afternoon, why would he “envy” Malum?

    We should, of course, show respect for our clients, but I think that there are much better ways to do it than to wear Zegna in the office.

    Other Steve, I appreciate your perspective. In our business, making the clients feel comfortable with us is, I think, a more important goal than just making them feel respected by us. (Though the latter is part of the former — they won’t feel comfortable if they don’t feel respected.)

  8. In his book, Win Your Case: How to Present, Persuade, and Prevail–Every Place, Every Time, Gerry Spence says…”We ought to be consistent in who we are. A guy who drives a pickup truck and wears plain clothes in the courtroom ought not be wearing a rolex. Creditbility is often founded or lost on small things.”

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