Enough is Enough: Lawyers Should Look like Lawyers!

By John Remsen, Jr.

Lawyers and law firm administrators are showing up for work dressed more and more casually these days. This trend is confirmed by The Remsen Report’s July Reader Survey that asked about dress codes in the legal profession. The topic also raised a flurry of discussion and some passionate opinions when I asked about it in the online law marketing discussion forums.

233 individuals participated in the Reader Survey, mostly managing partners, senior partners, firm administrators and marketing professionals throughout the United States. Here are the results.

How Do You Dress for the Office?

  • I always wear a suit: 23%
  • I prefer business casual, but wear a suit on some days: 58%
  • I wear a suit only if I must: 13%
  • Other: 8%

What Do You See as the Trend over the Past Five Years?

  • More formal: 7%
  • More casual: 71%
  • About the same: 22%

Clearly, lawyers are “dressing down” these days. Fewer than 25% say they dress for work in a suit and tie (or female equivalent) on a regular basis and over 70% say the workplace has become more casual over the past five years. Certainly, dress codes are much different than they were 25 years ago. But is this a good thing for the legal profession?

At first, you might be inclined to diss this month’s Marketing Tip as being too shallow and superficial. “What’s this got to do with marketing or being a good lawyer?” you might ask. Well, it’s about perceptions, and how others see you. Please read on.

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.

Whether You Like It or Not, Image Matters
Although how you dress has little to do with being a good lawyer, it has everything to do with how others perceive your legal capabilities, and it has a huge impact on your success (or failure) with marketing and business development.

It is no secret that people judge us not only on our skills and abilities, but also on the image we project. We all know brilliant and hard-working people who reach career plateaus or fail in business because of a sloppy image and/or poor social skills. In fact, a recent national survey conducted by HotJobs.com reveals that 89% of HR professionals say that dress matters when it comes to promotions in corporate America.

What is surprising, however, is how quickly people judge us. Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-seller Blink, confirms that people can and do size you up within seconds. Harry Beckwith, author of Selling the Invisible, talked about this fact of life at the Legal Marketing Association’s 2007 Annual Conference as well.

How the world sees you is important to your long-term professional success. Mr. Beckwith maintains that your visual image overpowers both the written and spoken word. Like it or not, we are a visual society and image matters more than you think, he says.

First impressions are powerful and lasting. It’s very difficult to recover from a bad one. Rarely, if ever, will you get a second chance if you blow it. You get only one chance, so you best make it a good one!

Lawyers Should Look Like Lawyers
Back in the old days when I started my consulting practice, I used to recommend that lawyers look like their clients. For example, banking lawyers should look like bankers; real estate lawyers should look like real estate developers; and sports and entertainment lawyers should look like jocks and movie stars. As the theory goes, clients would be more likely to hire (and would feel more comfortable if represented by) someone who looks and acts like they do.

However, as I’ve matured as a law firm marketing consultant, my opinion has changed. I believe that the vast majority of clients want lawyers who look like lawyers - crisp, polished, authoritative and professional. And I’m not alone.

I recently asked members of two law marketing listservs what they thought about the topic and here is a sampling of what they had to say:

Nancy Myrland, President of Myrland Marketing in Indianapolis, Indiana observes that “very few clients will fault you because you look too nice. Dressing in a suit for work or meetings sends a message of ultimate respect and that you are serious about your business. Your presentation and ‘packaging’ sets a tone.”

Stephen Babcock of the Babcock Law Firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana says, “I dress in high- end custom made suits and have been for the last two years. I am amazed at how it has changed my business and how I am perceived.”

Amy Smith-Pike, Marketing Director of Durrette Bradshaw in Richmond, Virginia tells the story of a young associate who recently attended a conference with the chair of her practice group and another senior attorney. “Both her dress and actions were detrimental to forging any new or meaningful relationships with other attorneys who can send business her way. To look at her you would think she was still in high school, maybe college….wearing low-cut casual pants (so low that I know she has a tattoo on her lower back), a shirt one step up from a t-shirt and showing up for a group photo in open toe shoes.” Amy added, “I strongly agree with dressing for the part. You never know when you will be speaking with a director, a client or a potential client.”

Susan Ward, Marketing, Communications and Development Director of Carlin Ward in Florham Park, New Jersey, says, “My take on ‘dress for success’ is simple: Casual dress>casual business>business casualty. Professional women in particular have to be very conscious of this. We’re still in a man’s profession, and we have to earn respect with clients, colleagues, and supervisors.”

Have I made my point?

Practical Tips for Lawyers and Professionals
If I’ve managed to persuade you (or if you already believed) that the image you project is important, here are my tips for busy lawyers and professionals.

  • Pay Attention to How You Look Because Others Do

Take pride in your appearance as a lawyer. It’s one of the noblest professions on earth. Always be conscientious about what you wear and how you present yourself to other people.

  • Buy the Highest Quality Clothing You Can Afford

It’s far better to invest in a few high-quality suits than a closet full of less expensive, trendier outfits. Buy classics that will stand the test of time. You can always spice things up with accessories like scarves and neckties.

  • Wear Colors that Look Good on You

Based on your hair color, eye color and skin tone, some colors will naturally look better on you than others. Take the time to find out which colors flatter you most and build your wardrobe accordingly.

  • Find a Really Great Tailor

You can buy the most expensive suit in the store, but it won’t look very good on you if you don’t get it properly tailored. Ask the well-dressed folks at your firm where they go. Spend the money. It makes all the difference in the world.

  • Find a Good Dry Cleaner, Too

When I moved to Atlanta two years ago, I searched far and wide to find the best dry cleaner in town. I asked my friends (the ones whose fashion sense I admired) where they went and tried a few different ones before settling on the one I use. Sure they’re a bit more expensive than most others, but worth every penny.

  • Get Your Hair Styled on a Regular Basis

For those of you who happen to have hair (I don’t), a great hair stylist can make a big difference in how you look, as well. Make an appointment at least once a month. Be careful about altering your natural hair color. Men should think twice about a toupee or hair transplant.

  • Don’t Forget about Your Wheels

My mother always said that you can judge a lot about a man by his shoes. Buy good quality and have them shined on a regular basis.

  • Wear Jewelry Judiciously

Tasteful accessories and jewelry can add a touch of class to any outfit. But don’t overdo it. The experts suggest that you buy the good stuff and keep it understated. Avoid a gaudy display. No earrings for men.

  • Stay Light on Perfume and Cologne

Like jewelry, too much of a good thing is not a good thing at all. Think about how you reacted the last time you were trapped in an elevator with someone wearing way too much cheap perfume. Don’t let that be you!

  • It’s Better to Overdress than Underdress

As Nancy Myrland suggests, nobody will fault you if you dress too nicely. And you can always “dress down” if you feel overdressed in a particular situation.

An Important Message to Associate Attorneys
For young lawyers, the image you project is even more important at this stage of your career than it is for senior lawyers. You want people to value your opinion and to take you seriously. Consider Amy Pike-Smith’s story about the young female associate attending the conference with two senior partners.

My advice? Pay attention to what the most successful and influential lawyers at your firm wear. Compliment them for their sense of style and ask where they shop and have their clothes tailored. Beyond that, it’s a good idea to ask your direct supervisor(s) about what kind of attire is expected and then dress slightly better than that.

Some Recommended Reading
Finally, here are a few books I’d like to recommend about this month’s topic:

Dress for Success
John T. Molloy
An all-time classic, even though parts of it are somewhat outdated. Malloy also wrote the New Women’s Dress for Success.

You’ve Only Got Three Seconds
Camille Lavington and Stephanie Losee
This book comes highly recommended and gets great reviews on Amazon.com. I just bought a copy myself.

Power Etiquette: What You Don’t Know Can Kill Your Career
Dana May Casperson
A good, quick basic overview about business etiquette.
Practical and easy-to-read.

Color Me Beautiful
Carole Jackson
A great book about the best colors to wear. We were required to read this book in graduate business school at The University of Virginia.

The Bottom Line….
You should always look crisp, polished and professional at work. It goes beyond client meetings and court appearances. It’s about the image that you and your firm project to your fellow attorneys, your staff, your co-tenants in the building and the people you see at lunchtime.

In addition, be aware of how you look when you are away from the job. You just never know who you might run into at the grocery store!

Take pride in the way you look and the image you project. It matters…big-time!

About the Author
John Remsen, Jr. is President of TheRemsenGroup, a marketing consulting firm that works exclusively with law firms to help them attract and retain the clients they want. He can be reached at 404.885.9100 or JRemsen@TheRemsenGroup.com.