By John Remsen, Jr.
NOTE: This is the second of two articles about current dress codes in US law firms. The first article appeared in the September issue of The Remsen Report and has since been published in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine. This second article presents reaction and commentary from managing partners and firm leaders across the country. Both articles can be found under “Marketing Tips of the Month” in the Resources section of our website - TheRemsenGroup.com.
Lawyers and law firm administrators are showing up for work dressed more and more casually these days. And most firm leaders don’t like it all, especially managing partners.
In fact, the September Reader Survey conducted by The Remsen Report indicates that 54% of 162 survey participants oppose more casual dress codes for lawyers. And — get this — 70% believe that casual dress has a negative influence on clients’ perceptions of the quality and value of a lawyer’s legal expertise.
In light of these not-so-surprising findings, why on earth would a lawyer want to “dress down” on a regular basis in these competitive times?
In addition to our Reader Survey, we asked 60 managing partners (members of our Managing Partner Forum Advisory Boards) to review our first article and provide their comments and opinions on the subject. This follow up article highlights what they have to say.
A Strong Reaction to a “Hot Button” Issue
For starters, here are two representative e-mails that capture the rather strong opinions of the managing partners from who we heard.
Lanny Lambert, Managing Shareholder of Turner Padget, a 95-lawyer firm based in Columbia, South Carolina, says, “You have really hit a hot button with me. Call me old school but people work like they dress.”
Rhea Law, President and CEO of Fowler White Boggs Banker, a 230-lawyer firm based in Tampa, Florida, writes:
Although not popular - I agree 150% with the opinions you express in your article. I strongly believe that clients are looking for someone who looks like a professional. When they meet you, how you dress is a critical issue…not whether you are trendy, hip, or ready for the weekend.
Just Trying to Look Like Our Clients
The movement toward more casual dress is confirmed by just about every managing partner who provided his/her opinion. In most cases, the lawyers say they are simply following the trends set by their clients, as well as other lawyers and professionals in their cities. (The exceptions appear to be New York, Boston and Chicago, where several firm leaders observe a return to more formal dress in recent years.)
Joe Serota, Managing Director of Weiss Serota, a 40-lawyer firm headquartered in Miami, and Chairman of the Florida Association of Managing Partners, summarizes the opinion of many when he says:
The clear trend is toward more casual dress and we’ve gone with the flow. People here (in Miami) often point to Greenberg Traurig which has a casual-all-the-time policy. It’s hard to argue that we are more ‘corporate’ than Greenberg. People really like casual dress and consider it more the rule than the exception these days.
Allan Diamond, Managing Partner of high-powered international litigation boutique Diamond McCarthy in Houston, adds that “in our high-end practice, we have seen a gradual trend towards more and more casual apparel appearances of lawyers and most clients over the past ten years.” Diamond even uses the firm’s casual dress code to recruit talented young lawyers. “We were one of the boutique firms that helped facilitate that movement and made it a part of our efforts to recruit top students at the national schools.”
Bob Werner, Managing Partner of Brown McCarroll with 175 lawyers at five office locations in Texas, says, “Almost all of the clients who come to our offices, even those from major corporations, dress in business casual.”
And the casual trend is reported throughout most parts of the country….
In Greensboro, North Carolina, John Flynn, Managing Partner of Carruthers & Roth (24 lawyers) reports that “I’ve seen the same trend toward more casual dress in my firm and in others. We started out with a business casual Friday. Now it’s every day of the week for many of our lawyers.”
In Louisville, Kentucky, Kennedy Helm, III, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Stites & Harbison (260 lawyers) says that “the business casual approach made sense during the dot-com era. We actually had clients ask us not to come to their places of business in suits.”
In Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Kennedy, Managing Partner of Martin Pringle (37 lawyers), says that “we tend toward business casual dress, which is the style that has been adopted by an overwhelming majority of clients.”
In Jacksonville, Florida, Doug Ward, Managing Partner of Rogers Towers (95 lawyers), observes that lawyers just don’t meet face-to-face with clients as often as they used to. He says:
Our practice has so drastically changed from even ten or fifteen years ago, in that many lawyers rarely even see their clients during a normal work week. Therefore, I think there is much less reason to ‘dress up’ unless you have a client who you are actually meeting in person.
Personally, I don’t care how your clients dress. Lawyers are high-priced professionals and should look the part. The only exception would be if your clients specifically ask that you dress more casually when you go visit them at their place of business.
Geographic Considerations Factor Into the Equation
Several firm leaders mention that geography helps determine acceptable dress codes at some of their firms’ office locations.
Sharon Abrahams, Director of Practice Development of Chicago-based McDermott Will & Emery with over 1,100 lawyers, says:
In our New York and Boston offices, it’s formal business attire 24/7. They dress up even when they’re away from work. On the other hand, our lawyers in California wear Hawaiian shirts on casual Fridays. It’s fun for them, and they can pull it off in California. In our Miami office, it’s much more casual. I think it has more to do the heat than anything else.
Even within a single state, dress codes can vary by office. Brown McCarroll’s Bob Werner says, “‘The dress code for our Firm reflects the culture of the various cities where we have offices. In Austin, business casual is the norm. Our Dallas and Houston offices are more formal with most wearing coats and ties, except on casual Fridays.”
The Overwhelming Majority of Managing Partners Agree:
Lawyers Should Look Like Lawyers
Almost every managing partner who contributed his/her comments agree with my assertion that, with few exceptions, lawyers should dress like lawyers. And they feel quite strongly about it. They say that casual dress makes a lawyer look less credible. Some even go so far as to say that it has a negative impact on productivity and work product.
Don Christopher, a fellow UVA graduate and Managing Partner of Litchford & Christopher, a high-end, 15-lawyer commercial litigation firm in Orlando, Florida, has particularly strong feelings about the issue.
When serving as a law clerk to Judge Young in federal court 30 years ago, I learned quickly that how attorneys dressed affected their credibility with the judge, court personnel, jurors, and other lawyers. Those who “looked like they knew what they were doing” were invariably credenced more quickly than those who did not. Dress is a very important part of how you present yourself. Lawyers are often initially viewed from across the courtroom. I found that, without ever hearing them speak a word, onlookers immediately formed an opinion as to the lawyers’ competence.
John Flynn (Carruthers & Roth in Greensboro, North Carolina) offers this anecdote: “One of our more senior partners said: ‘If you want to look like a ball player, you’ve got to dress like a ball player.’ He was opposed to casual dress.”
Turner Padget’s Lanny Lambert has this to say:
Folks will never complain that you look too nice. I start every law clerk summer session and new associate orientation session with some of your same themes: You should always be prepared to look like a lawyer when you cover a matter, when a client drops by, or when you are called to court. It’s just part of being prepared to give the very best in client service.
Dressing Sharp for a Competitive Advantage
From a marketing and business development perspective, several managing partners feel that more formal dress creates a competitive advantage in today’s competitive marketplace.
For example, Nick Pope, President and CEO of Lowndes Drosdick which has 130 lawyers in Orlando, Florida, says:
My personal view is that it is not inconvenient to wear a tie (assuming you buy the correct size shirt) and that although it may be debatable whether some clients or prospective clients care, it is clear that some do. Therefore, why would you give up a possible edge in a business as competitive as ours?
Steve Susman, Founding Partner of the highly successful 85-lawyer litigation firm of Susman Godfrey with offices in New York, Houston and elsewhere, says, “A law firm should pay its lawyers based on what they bring in. They will then dress in a way to bring the most business in.” When I ask him the best dress to bring in business, he emphatically responds, “In a suit!”
Not Just for Clients and the Court
Several firm leaders say that, in addition to clients and the court, the impression you make with your co-workers, the lunch crowd and the people you see on your way to and from work every day is important, too. It’s a part of the overall brand and image that you (and the firm) project to the marketplace.
Mike Saunders, Chairman of Spencer Fane Britt & Browne, a 135-lawyer firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, says, “We office in a bank building and we do a fair amount of work with bank personnel. All of those bank officers are dressed in coat and tie or the equivalent. It’s important that we dress that way, too.”
A “Seriousness of Purpose”
Many managing partners go so far as to say that more formal dress directly contributes to a stronger work ethic, improved efficiency and a better work product. You may not feel this way, but it’s clear that many senior lawyers do.
Lanny Lambert (Turner Padgett in Columbia, South Carolina) captures the feelings of a good number of managing partners when he states, “Call me old school but people work like they dress.”
Don Christopher (Litchford & Christopher in Orlando, Florida) says, “My view is that dress not only colors others’ perceptions of you, but also affects your own performance and seriousness of purpose. That is why I believe a lawyer working alone in the office in a suit does better work than one in casual attire.”
John Flynn (Carruthers & Roth in Greensboro, North Carolina) says, “On the days that I am dressed casually, I feel less productive. And, as managing partner at least, I think I’m sometimes perceived as less authoritative when dressed casually than when I’m wearing a suit.
Mike Saunders (Spencer Fane in Kansas City, Missouri) has similar opinions: “We want to be projecting an image of professionalism, gravity and trust. I find it difficult to believe that someone who takes little pride in his/her appearance will take more pride in the quality of his/her work product.”
And Nick Pope (Lowndes Drosdick in Orlando, Florida) shares his philosophy:
I also feel that it lends to a more professional atmosphere in the office, whether there are clients present or not. This causes people to act more professionally, which is good for business and for morale. This view is almost always shared by the clients whose opinions I sometimes solicit on this topic.
Especially Important for Women and Younger Lawyers
No doubt, the issue of dress and personal image is far more important for younger, upwardly-mobile lawyers than it is for their more senior counterparts. And women face wardrobe challenges that men don’t.
I like the advice that Sharon Abrahams (McDermott Will & Emery) has to offer: “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” She cautions that men should think twice before wearing an earring and no one should ever reveal a tattoo.
Many managing partners encourage younger lawyers to look at the examples set by the most successful lawyers around them.
For example, Mike Saunders (Spencer Fane in Kansas City, Missouri) shares this advice:
I tell young lawyers to look at the most successful and most respected lawyers in our firm and then to make their own decisions on how they want to appear. I’m pleased to report that this advice has caused more than one young associate to wear a coat and tie daily.
Finally, Nick Pope (Lowndes Drosdick in Orlando, Florida) says:
I think it is harder to make judgments about what is casual and what is not for women attorneys than for male attorneys, where a tie is an obvious difference. For women the choices are much broader and while it is clear on the two ends of the spectrum, the middle is blurry, at least from a male’s perspective.
Is the Pendulum Starting to Swing Back?
Several managing partners are glad to see what might be the beginning of a trend toward a return to more formal dress codes, especially in markets like New York, Boston and Chicago.
Sharla Frost, Managing Partner of the 30-lawyer, Houston-based law firm of Powers & Frost says:
I spend the majority of my time in New York these days. Lawyers here dress like lawyers: suits, dress shirts, ties. The legal field needs to emulate the business sector it serves and the business sector has moved away from casual dress.
At Chicago’s Arnstein & Lehr (110 lawyers) , Managing Partner Ray Werner says he believes that “the casual dress trend has reversed a bit in the past couple of years…a significant segment of the young professionals have become more dressed for professional work.”
Steve Susman (Susman Godfrey), who spends most of his time these days in New York, says, “I’m happy to say that today there is a trend back to formality.”
And in Texas, Amy Miller, Director of Client Services at Cox Smith Matthews (120 lawyers based in San Antonio), says that “we are heading back to the more traditional business dress. From a marketing standpoint, I never agreed with the casual dress movement. With rates where they are and competition among law firms, dressing as a professional should be a non-issue.”
And Managing Partners Are Clearly Frustrated!
Interestingly, most managing partners appear to have little control over the situation. After all, lawyers tend to be autonomous creatures and often do whatever they feel like. In fact, many managing partners are frustrated in their inability to influence how their fellow partners (and associates, for that matter) dress.
We’ll close by sharing a few of their final comments:
Sharla Frost (Powers & Frost in Houston) says, “I have been lobbying for us to go back to a formal, professional dress code for years. We haven’t so far, but I continue to suggest it.”
John Flynn (Carruthers & Roth in Greensboro, North Carolina) adds, “I fought dressing down on Fridays for a long time but finally started doing it when I was the only person here wearing a suit.”
Nick Pope (Lowndes Drosdick in Orlando, Florida) has this observation:
We have tackled the issue several times and have found it to be one about which reasonable people frequently differ. Interestingly, it does not always divide on age. We have some more mature attorneys who prefer casual dress and some younger attorneys who prefer more formal dress. We are going to be debating the issue again shortly, as a result of a request from our Associate Relations Committee.
Steve Susman (Susman Godfrey in New York) sums it up this way: “Years ago I thought that our lawyers should wear coats and ties every day. I got outvoted. We first went to casual Fridays and then to casual all days.”
Allan Diamond (Diamond McCarthy in Houston) gives thoughtful advice:
While I still like to recruit our top talented young associates by marketing to them that we have a collegial atmosphere and lawyers can dress business casual in the office at all times, I have found that it is indeed more reflective of the image we want to promote with clients worldwide for us to dress professionally….looking ‘polished’ connotes qualities of ‘sharpness, organization and an organized mind, toughness when necessary and being at the top of one’s game.’ You are correct in that it has nothing to do with being a good lawyer, but everything to do with perception by others of whom they are hiring. Clients, whether it be real estate developers, entertainers or bankers, want to say to their bosses and colleagues that they hire the best lawyers. Being the best means looking the best too. Again, it doesn’t mean you have to wear Armani suits but it does mean you have to connote a sense of ‘power’ and ‘grace.’
And, finally, Kennedy Helm (Stites & Harbison in Louisville, Kentucky) believes that “the real test is what do those attorneys who are most successful and admired wear? If the firm’s partners dress casually, so will the associates.”
My advice to younger lawyers? Dress like the most successful lawyers in your firm. I’ll bet that most of the time, they wear suits.
In my humble opinion, lawyers should always look crisp, polished and professional. Not just for client meetings and court appearances, but for each and every work day.
Your clients, your fellow attorneys and your staff judge you (and your work product) by the way you look, especially if you are young and in the early stages of building a successful legal career.
So dress up, my friends! It’s a good habit for both you and your career. Besides, it will make your managing partner very happy!
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.