By Desiree Moore and Kathryn Conway
In recent months, several articles have been published discussing “appropriate” attire for women in professional office settings, and more specifically, in law firm settings. (See Loyola Los Angeles Law School’s memo to students regarding attire). What has troubled us about these articles is not the substantive message, necessarily. At bottom, these articles are suggesting that women should dress according to the professional standards of the industry, which is not an entirely off-the- wall proposition. But, the negative tone and significant editorializing contained within these posts can be a bit difficult to overcome.
As practitioners who happen to love fashion, we see the dilemma: there is a fine line between exploring fashion, expression, and personality through attire and adhering to the professional expectations–reasonable or not–of the legal industry. Given that the industry is still male dominated, it is arguably the world according to others, but we are living in it. In the end, we have reconciled that the envelope may be pushed, but slowly, and that the only way real change will occur is when women arrive consistently and steadily at the top…but the challenge is that we do not want to jeopardize our chances of getting there.
For guidance, here are five key rules for remaining true to yourself and your fashion sensibilities while also adhering to the expectations of the legal industry:
1. Be Yourself
There are certainly rules of thumb in terms of what is proper in a professional setting (see No. 3 below). Assuming that you are keeping these rules of thumb in mind, however, the most important thing is to remain true to yourself. For example, Hillary Clinton has made famous gender-neutral, hyper-professional attire, and indeed this is a safe way of dressing so as to be taken seriously. But, if that is not you, then it is futile to try to adopt this persona. In fact, it is arguably harmful to your career, as you cannot be your most confident, poised self if you are not comfortable with how you look. Within reason, wear what you like and what makes you feel and perform your best. This (in addition to good substantive work) is the quickest path to earning the respect and trust of your colleagues.
2. When In Doubt, Wear A Suit
A smart suit is your best tool for making a bold statement without compromising one inch in terms of professionalism. A well-tailored skirt or pant suit (yes, pant suits are acceptable in a legal setting for women, too) and a conservative, but colorful or interesting silk blouse are gorgeous from a fashion perspective and no nonsense from a work perspective. This is easily the best of all worlds, and should be your go-to anytime you are in doubt.
3. Do Not Make Them Avert Their Eyes
There are undoubtedly articles of clothing that tend to make colleagues, men and women alike, both want to look and not want to look. Broadly speaking, these items include: skirts that are too short; ultra-form-fitting dresses; any items that expose the entire shoulder, arm, or upper chest area; and open shoes like sandals. Here is the bottom line: there is no real need to wear items like this in a professional setting and doing so may compromise your career. Also, as men do not even have the option of wearing any of these items (strappy sandals, short shorts, form fitting shirts, etc.), in order to stay on equal footing with our male colleagues, it makes sense not to inject these items into our professional wardrobes.
For women lawyers who want to get ahead, there is simply no article of clothing, or no level of dedication to fashion, that should justify career compromise. In the end, we want attention for our substantive work product, for the contributions we are making to our office as a whole, and for our potential moving forward. If the decision-makers are distracted or otherwise forced to avert their eyes, your brilliance and work and efforts may be lost on them.
4. Listen To Your Inner Voice
We have consistently found that we are our own best gauge for whether we are dressing appropriately for our respective working environments. If, at any time, your inner voice raises a concern (Should I wear a suit to this networking event? Is this dress too tight for a client meeting? Should I wear tights?), listen to that concern and make adjustments. And, if you are unsure, send a quick picture text to a friend or colleague who is familiar with the realities of your career and will give you quick, honest feedback.
5. Think About Your Long Term Goals
Right or wrong, there is no question that something as non-substantive as attire can impact the trajectory of your career. So, keep your long term career goals in mind as you plan your professional wardrobe, and use these goals as incentive to dress according to your office’s expectations. Then, when you get to the top, as we are sure you will, start pushing for all of the changes you wish to see in the legal world.
The ladies of House of Marbury will be supporting you!
Desiree Moore and Kathryn Conway are practicing lawyers, fashion enthusiasts, and the co-founders of House of Marbury, a popular fashion and style blog for women lawyers. For daily professional fashion inspiration, please join our community at www.HouseofMarbury.com.