The answer to the question, “What shall I wear to work today?” used to be a no-brainer for most lawyers. The male attorney simply had to decide which of his dark suits, dress shirts, and ties he felt like wearing. For the female attorney, it was a skirt or pantsuit, blouse, stockings and pumps. But, with the advent of Casual Friday, things became more complex. And now, with Casual Summer, or year-round Casual Days, all bets are off.
The credit-or blame-for this phenomenon belongs to laid-back California, especially Los Angeles with its entertainment industry, and the Silicon Valley with its high tech companies. Casual dress for law firms has spread across the country, including such formerly staid firms as Omaha, Nebraska’s Kutak Rock and Boston’s Bingham Dana. Both of those firms have gone so far as to allow daily casual dress this summer. The National Law Journal recently conducted a survey finding that 85% of the 235 law firms that responded now have a casual dress day at least once a week. Sixteen of the firms allow daily casual dress year-round. The survey showed that even New York law firms have embraced the practice, yet the most formal dress policies remain in the South.
Old-line San Francisco-based Brobeck Phleger & Harrison has instituted everyday casual dress in all of its 10 offices, including New York. The firm sees this as giving it a distinct recruiting edge. Brobeck competes with prestigious firms nationwide for the top candidates, and believes that it has landed several highly desirable recruits because of its hipper, less formal, attitude regarding dress code. Another plus is that casual dress saves the new recruits significant wardrobe dollars, because most students do not complete law school with a closet full of suits. It is much less expensive to stock up on khaki, which is especially appreciated by junior associates struggling to pay off large law school loans.
Another strong argument in favor of casual dress is that, for many of the firms that have adopted it, such dress makes the lawyers much more approachable to their clients. In the Silicon Valley, it is a rare techno-nerd who wears suits to work. Similarly, entertainment lawyers long have eschewed conservative dress. By now, even more traditional companies, such as Mutual of Omaha and John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., have gone casual. It is a good idea, however, to have a suit stashed in the office for those emergencies where a proper, lawyerly appearance is required, such as an unscheduled meeting with more formal clients or a court appearance.
So, what is appropriate dress for Casual Days? That depends on the particular firm. There is one firm in downtown Los Angeles where cut-off jeans, tee shirts, and sandals are perfectly appropriate for any attorney any day. For most firms, however, casual dress is nowhere near that casual! The rule of thumb is to observe carefully, read whatever dress policy has been promulgated, if any, and err on the side of conservatism.
And, from the recruiters’ point of view, we would be remiss if we did not warn you: when interviewing with any firm, regardless of whether it is Casual Day, wear your business suit and look like a good old-fashioned lawyer!