I hear this quite a lot.
Once upon at time when I worked for the prestigious law firm of Rottman, Maughan and Nash* I dressed aggressively in dark suits with sharp angles and spiky heels. I did so to demonstrate to clients that I was well worth the $400+ an hour the firm charged them for my time. Now my billing targets and my charge out rates are half what they used to be. I dress in a way that makes me feel relaxed and happy. On a sweaty, muggy Sydney day you are more likely to find me in a floaty maxi dress and strappy sandals than a crisp pencil skirt/silk blouse combo. Sweating does not become me. My husband tells me that I now dress, to paraphrase Dr Frasier Crane, in a way that says, “I’m listening and it isn’t going to cost you a bloody fortune“.
When I read recently in The Times that power dressing is back with a vengeance I was a bit alarmed. I have so many wide shouldered suits; coat dresses and so on from the dusk of the power dressing years. Does the new power dressing mean that I should go all retro and dress for success as a scary high priced lawyer again? No. According to Fashion Law, if you were old enough to wear a trend the first time, you should really give it a wide berth second time. Also, I have fought too long and too hard to escape the corporate bondage of the dark suit.
That said, I am in the blessed position that I am a senior lawyer in a small, specialised media and technology law firm not a graduate lawyer fighting tooth and nail with 100 other smart cookies for the same high paying top tier firm job.
If I was a baby lawyer again, I would be in a real dilemma. Would I dress in a manner that makes me feel good or would I attempt dress to the standards of others? If the latter, how exactly would I determine what those standards are?
Read any article about dress standards for lawyers (usually written by management consultants) and you will find the advice is gender non-specific. Dresscode.com defines business dress quite accurately and advises people in the corporate world that “Generally it’s best to ‘fit in’, so take your cue from your peers and try to dress to the same standard. This helps with interpersonal communication“. In a nutshell, standard thinking would have lawyers dress discreetly, expensively and invisibly. Presumably the underlying reasoning is that by doing so, you will deflect attention from your physical appearance and direct people towards your (hopefully) shiny and sparkly mental abilities. How depressing that professionals believe that we can be subdivided in such a way.
Is a client going to look at my antique earrings and assume that I am incapable of negotiating a contract? Is the judge going to find against my client because I wear red patent leather shoes to court? Are sartorial signifiers really matter so significant if you can do your job properly? Of course not. So I have three suggestions for young lawyers dressing to impress: dress beautifully, dress tastefully (no toe cleavage please) and dress to suit your own personal style.
To that end, I shall share with you some of my style gurus–ladies who have helped influence the way I dress as a lawyer today.
1. Sheriff Rosie Morrison
I once had the very great pleasure of appearing before a Scottish barrister and part-time judge called Rosaleen Morrison. Billy Connolly has described her as one of the funniest women that he ever met. She was also good looking, stylish and eccentric with a penchant for semi-transparent black blouses over elegant underwear. Everyone at Glasgow Sheriff Court when I was a baby lawyer called her Sheriff Rosie.
In the 1980s, Sheriff Rosie worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong. During her tenure a solicitor complained that her breasts were visible through her blouse, Sheriff Rosie replied:
“My breasts have given pleasure to many men. I would be more concerned if they were visible through my tights.”
Sadly, Sheriff Rosie passed away in March this year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. There is a lovely photo of her here though. Stylish, funny, smart and passionate about justice, she is one of my heroes.
2. Cher in Suspect
The film Suspect is a fairly workmanlike legal thriller. A homeless deaf-mute man is arrested for murder. Cher plays his public defender. In typical legal thriller style, she has no other work to do and heads off to track down the real killer in the meantime unveiling a web of bureaucratic corruption. All of this stuff is secondary to the fact that Cher wore a black leather jacket in court (very Bryan Ferry circa the Bride Stripped Bare). and wild, Pre-Raphaelite black curls. I approve.
3. Ling Woo, Ally McBeal
For a long, long time I avoided watching Ally McBeal. Calista Flockhart, her short skirts, her kvetching and her insipid helplessness made me want to set fire to the television. One evening, when there was absolutely nothing else on the telly I resigned myself to watching an episode. I was immediately and completely sucked in by the ferocious Ling Woo (Lucy Liu).
My favourite Ling quote? “I’m rich. I only go into work to wear my outfits! ”
My favorite Ling outfit? This one screams kick arse court dressing.
(*Firm name changed to protect the innocent, all two of them, it did have harbour views though… )