Lawyering and Living for Less: Building a Working Wardrobe Without Breaking the Bank

The law is a profession that values itself on appearance.  Lawyers dress in the most professional of attire, abiding by rules that would seem outdated and absurd in just about any other profession.  So when you're entering the legal field after spending (at least) the last three years as a student, making the transition can be daunting.  How do you go from a wardrobe of sweatpants and coffee-stained t-shirts to one of suits, heels, and pearls, before you've received your first paycheck?

Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating.  Most law students will have decent work attire from summer jobs, as well as one or two Interview Suits.  But when you no longer have the "I'm a poor law student" excuse to justify your appearance, you'll need to step it up.  It's certainly possible: the key is to focus on building a wardrobe: gradually, purposefully, and methodically.

Know What You've Got: Take an inventory of your closet before you add to it.  Set up a full-length mirror and try everything on.  Doesn't fit but still in good shape?  Sell it.  Out of style or simply seen better days?  Donate it.  When you're done, lay out potential work attire and take stock of what you have to work with.  Put together outfits (again, try it all on), and take note of what you need to complete them.

Know What You Need: Concentrate on staples in neutral colors that are easy to mix and match.  Suits with both a matching skirt and pants are more versatile - you'll get more use out of the blazer (the most expensive part of a suit).  Start with the basics and build from there as you get a few more months (and paychecks) under your belt: two or three suits, a few pairs of pants in neutral colors, a handful of shirts to wear under blazers (can be of less quality as they're mostly covered), black and brown heels, and a few pieces of simple jewelry.

Know Where To Buy: It goes without saying that you aren't going to march into your local high-end department store and buy out the suit section.  But you also don't want to be buying suits at Kmart.  There's a happy medium:

  • Consignment: Stores such as Clothes Mentor carry a wide variety of gently used professional attire in a variety of brands and sizes.  This is the perfect place to start (and if your closet clean-out resulted in a substantial 'sell' pile, bring your clothes here and make some money before you shop).  If there is no Clothes Mentor in your area, try your local thrift store, vintage shop, or even Goodwill.  You may have to look hard, but if you're willing to put in the time, you can come up with some great finds.
  • Big Box: Although I wouldn't advise getting your entire wardrobe at Target, I am a big fan of their separates.  Look for inexpensive tops in bright colors to liven up your neutral basics.  Target also has a great shoe selection, and if you find a pair you love, wait a couple of weeks to buy: Target regularly cycles shoes through its racks, so there is a good chance that your choice will be on clearance within weeks!
  • Discount Stores: I am a big fan of Marshall's, TJ Maxx, and similar stores for professional attire at a steal.  This one will take some work, too: clothes cycle through these stores quickly, and there will be a lot of less-than-desirable items to sift through, so be prepared to spend some time.  It will be worth it when you walk away with some great pieces at even better prices!
  • The Mall: Stores such as Old Navy are great for solid-colored basics (again, good for wearing under or with higher-quality pieces).  When in the market for suiting, pay attention to sales: sign up for stores' email lists and make note of upcoming promotions.  Stores such as The Limited (my favorite for quality, affordable suiting) almost always have some sort of sale or promotion (including a 10% student discount every Tuesday).  Don't be afraid to ask!

Buy What You Need: All your hard work will be for nothing if your closet is full of mismatched outfits - you'll still be stuck with nothing to wear!  So shop with a purpose: keep a mental inventory of what you have and what you need.  When you try something on, envision exactly how (and with what) you're going to wear it.  Aside from being cost-effective, this will make dressing in the morning a breeze!

Shopping and fashion should be fun, so don't let the challenge of shopping on a budget overwhelm you before you start.  Just go in prepared, be willing to take the time, and don't try to complete your entire wardrobe in one day, and you will be (and look) successful!



If you’re on a budget, another consideration when purchasing clothing is upkeep.  It gets very expensive to dry clean items, so trying to purchase shells that you can wear under suits but wash in the washing machine can save a lot of money over time.  You are stuck dry cleaning most suits, but women have some business casual options that might be machine washable.  I didn’t used to think about this aspect of my wardrobe while shopping, but dry cleaning is such a pain that I always think about it now!

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