"Older people have long complained about the sartorial sloppiness of the younger generation. But the divide is stark in the legal profession." That's what Christina Binkley observes today in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. And her article titled "Law Without Suits: New Hires Flout Tradition" is about success, not style. The raw reality of too-casual dress by associates, even with no clients present to see them, is that it is likely damaging their careers.
As we all know, casual Friday bleeded into casual all-week. And human nature being what it is, those not reared - i.e. Gens Y & X - on the correlation between wardrobe/grooming and upward mobility have become downright unprofessional in how they dress for work. They assume, wrongly, intellectual horsepower will win the day.
As a result, there's little attention paid to managing a message about one's professional self through a well-put-together image. And that the powers-that-be concede, both on and off the record, can be a deal-breaker in everything from being exposed to opportunity to a shot at making partner. Says Binkley, "Legal associates who aren't sartorially prepared may not be invited along to a new-client pitch or to take a leading role in court, regardless of the office's stated 'business casual' dress code."
What I tell Gen Xs and Ys I coach is that dress and appearance, from hair to nails to polish on the shoes, are symbolic. Others see those markers as indications of how we organize our work and our lives. Being sloppy screams bad things about us. That's just the way it is.
There's more, I instruct them. Never assume that one can be off-stage. In professional life, there is no off-duty sign that we can turn on the way cab drivers do. I have had bosses who called at weird hours just to monitor drinking habits. The recommended read on professional life as total staging is Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life."
My advice to ambitious law associates: Create a comfortable appearance in professional attire. Your peers will make fun of you if you look too partnerish. So, it's the art of dressing well but looking like it was just put together.
In families with pedigree, the son's getting that first custom-made suit is a rite of passage. Everyone recognizes by the cut of the suit that he has joined the tribe as an adult. Not dressing the part of an adult signals a clinging to a more irresponsible, rebellious, self-absorbed stage of human development.
At the landmark Rhode Island Lead Paint Trial II, Jones Day managing partner Laura Ellsworth wore Chanel. And she was shrewd enough, given her good legs, to wear open-backed shoes when she made a presentation in court on IQ. All the male defense attorneys had brandname suits and carefully cut hair. No matter how much snow and ice out there on RI streets, none had boots on in court. If they wore them in, they tucked them into their attache cases.