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Looking Like a Lawyer, Part 1: Women

May 14, 2012

This is the first of a two-part series on cultivating a lawyerly appearance. Author Maria E. Harris is a member of the Young Lawyers Division Executive Committee.

The following tips are based upon interviews with female attorneys selected for their reputations as classy, professional and stylish members of the bar. They range in age from thirties to fifties and have practiced in a variety of settings, from government to private practice, both plaintiff and defense.

Know your audience. Dressing as an attorney depends not only on who you are but also whom you are interacting with.  It can vary depending on whether you are going to court, a networking event, appearing at the office or simply going to dinner with co-workers.

Just because it’s technically within the dress code doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Having interviewed partners in their 40s and 50s, I have an intimate view of the expectations for dressing as a young woman attorney.

Dressing up a little pays dividends. Women lawyers who are more established and experienced feel that, as young women, we should be more cognizant of how the way we present ourselves affects others’ impressions of us. [Ed. note: The Young Lawyer editorial board recently made this same point.]

Whether in the office, court, presenting to a client or networking, dress to impress! Don’t get comfortable if your office allows “business casual.”  Remember that someone is always watching.  If your office does not require a suit, at the very least, young female attorneys should be dressed in appropriately fitting slacks or a skirt of appropriate length (not more than an inch above the knee—pencil skirts are classy and always the appropriate length) and either a blouse or button-down shirt.

Avoid provocative attire. Another tip from those that are more established and experienced is that young women should “tone down the sexy.”  We want our peers to respect us, not lust us.  Accordingly, short skirts, cleavage and tight clothes should be avoided.

Individualize your look in proportion with your professional profile.  More established attorneys, who have developed a reputation in the community and with their clients, have said that they have more latitude to dress a little “outside the box.”  For example, they may wear jewelry and colors they do not recommend for young associates.  The point is, they recommend as young lawyers, we should err on the side of caution. Until you have a well established reputation for professionalism, idiosyncratic dress may lead to undesirable assumptions about one’s competence and professionalism.

Hosiery.  During summer months, there seems to be a consensus that a woman—as long as you have somewhat tan, smooth legs—you can go hose free.  However, if you choose not to shave or you haven’t tanned, you may want to wear pantyhose.

Skirts vs. pants.  Most females attorneys, regardless of age, believe that both skirts or pants are acceptable when it comes to appearances in court, the office, client meetings, and other consequential occasions. There are those that believe, especially when appearing in court or where there are court reporters (e.g., depositions), you should wear a skirt suit.  However, the majority of women attorneys I surveyed do not believe that is the case.  A pant suit is just fine, in fact, some believe that a pant suit is actually safer, as you avoid the judgment that comes with a short skirt.

Shoes.  The consensus is that heels are preferred with professional attire, although some women do prefer wearing flats, and of course, that is acceptable.  Heels are favorable because, as women, the truth is that many of us are shorter than men and the obvious reason for wearing them is to bring us to a “leveled” and “finished” appearance.

Platforms are perfectly acceptable as long as they don’t reach the “weekend attire” level.  There is no universal height maximum for the platform, or the heel in general, but women should remember that they are professionals and style is welcomed, but you are not going to a nightclub.

Open-toed shoes are acceptable during the summer. However, a female attorney should not wear “strappy” sandals to court.

Jewelry.  The opinions when it comes to jewelry vary.  Some say anything goes (again, as long as you’re not dressing for a weekend night out), while others think that there is a strategy behind jewelry.  The consensus is, when it comes to court, events, or working in the office: one ring per hand, tasteful earrings (I know, this is subjective), a tasteful necklace (again, subjective) and a tasteful bracelet (same).  It’s difficult to define “tasteful” because it depends on the jewelry and outfit.  Ladies, you have to use your discretion on this.  If you are wearing a suit or other outfit with a lot going on, you may want to choose less attention-catching jewelry. However, if your outfit is plain, the right jewelry can make you stand out.

Trial.  If you are on the defense end, remember – you may be fictionally be representing money; therefore, don’t actually represent money.  You may want to go as conservative as possible.  In other words, lose any diamonds, and keep it conservative. [Ed. note: Lawyers of all other stripes should also be mindful of flashiness. Judges and juries want to see lawyers project confidence and success, but overdoing it can be distracting and even off-putting.]

Clients.  If you are meeting with a client, you may want to look modest, yet refined and of course professional.  Pearls (black or white, depending on the outfit) are historically a good move.

Colors.  Again, depends on where you are going.  Some women believe that any color goes when it comes to wearing suits – whether for client meetings or court.  The majority, however, believe that when it comes to young attorneys—especially if you are young or on a defense team—you must stick to dark, conservative colors, i.e., black and blue.  This, however, depends on age.  Female attorneys in their 40’s and above feel that it is perfectly acceptable to dress “outside the box.”  As young attorneys we are expected to be neutral as we are still developing our reputations.  Either way, young or old, at the very least, female attorneys should stick to muted shades and nothing bright.

Power Suit.  We all need a power suit with accessories for that super important court appearance or client meeting.  This is the one you save in the back of your closet.  Dark. Fits perfect. You feel like a million bucks.

Additional resources:

“A Young Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Dress,” The Legal Intelligencer (July 27, 2011).

“Look Like a Lawyer: Dress to Impress,” Lawyerist (Jan. 7, 2011).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jbette01 permalink
    June 18, 2012 6:29 pm

    I strongly disagree with the shoe advice. Open toed shoes are not professional wear, plain and simple. This is particularly true if you choose not to wear pantyhose. Slingbacks may be acceptable if conservative. Anything more than a 3inch heel is for going out, not for the office.

    And yes, I spent several years in the legal industry and no, I’m not ancient – late twenties! Sharpen up ladies, we have an impression to leave.

    • May 4, 2013 6:29 pm

      I completely agree. Besides, ladies, we have to actually be comfortable in the shoes we wear. Higher than three inches or open toe that are not already worn in will cause blisters. You will need to focus on your work, not on the pain in your feet.

      Also, professionalism is key but remember that as a woman you need to stand out. Adding a touch of soft pink here or there shows you are feminine while adding a red shell under your suit jacket or red shoes displays confidence(please remember to color coordinate rather than color block) Know your color wheel and use it to your advantage.

  2. November 3, 2012 8:21 am

    I enjoyed reading this article. However, back where I’m from, no one cares about shaved legs and panty hose. It’s very hot here.


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