Shoes, Clothes, and Law, Oh My

The Wall Street Journal has joined the hoary conversation on women’s professional apparel with a trifeca of articles/blog posts: first, with a profile of Lehman Brother’s CFO Erin Callan; next, with a follow-up post on The Juggle blog that specifically commented on Callan’s choice of shoes in the photo accompanying the profile; and now on the Law Blog, which picked up on comments that split on whether female lawyers indeed need to wear uncomfortable professional outfits in the courtroom.

And as regular Ms. JD readers know, this is indeed something that consumes a great deal of time and mental anxiety for female lawyers and law students (I’ve posted in the forum about it here; sintecho has written about long v. short hair here; and a paralegal has written about her sartorial quandaries here).

All of this leads to one simple conclusion: a lot of people have strong opinions on whether appearances matter, particularly for women. Past that, good luck finding any consensus. I’m not going to hide the ball on my position, since I have always thought that (1) appearances matter a lot; (2) there are absolutely wrong choices to make; and (3) finding the right balance between what is appropriate, comfortable, and something you like is one of those juggling skills that only come with a lot of practice, some keen observations, and a good sense of self. As a huge fan of Go Fug Yourself and Jezebel’s Snap Judgments and the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly, I’m not afraid to stick with the notion that the message you send with your clothes and appearance will often precede you, and may even ensure that what comes out of your mouth (or from your briefs) can both be discounted or augmented by your appearance.

Personally, and (I think) in light of my relative youth, background, and brand new J.D. (a whole other post!), I go conservative. By which I mean an almost exclusively Brooks Brothers professional wardrobe, right down to pearls (a frequent choice) and starched Oxford shirts. This is a tact I quickly adopted after working in two federal government jobs, first as an intern, and next as a paralegal. The latter position, which I did between college and law school, resulted in being on trial or in a courtroom all the time, in front of judges, juries, and opposing counsel, sometimes for trials that lasted for weeks. That position had a steep learning curve when it comes to appearances, but one I am very grateful for. My personal rule can be boiled down to one simple maxim—if you have to think about whether it is okay for more than a minute, do not wear it—but there are many iterations (for the courtroom: always wear a suit; no open-toed shoes; no cleavage, excessive jewelry, or crazy hair). I should add an important caveat to this personal narrative, though. I’m very lucky because I do not face some of the trickier issues that many women do—my hair is pin-straight and I keep it pretty short (a combination of sheer laziness and the fact it looks terrible once it grows past my chin); I have a small chest (enabling me to wear said Oxford shirts); and I’m of medium height and build, so I can wear clothes off the rack without tailoring. I do look like a kid sometimes, but with a little makeup and the right outfit and accessories, look my age. Accessories and slightly interesting shoes are where I am more liberal, but all within reason, largely in deference to the comfort of my feet and my limited budget (that is: no Manolos or flashy gems for me).

Beyond these particulars, I have come strongly to the conclusion that you do not want your clothes to speak more strongly than your words. I also tend to agree with those who think that lawyers ought to skew towards the formal, viewing suits as our professional uniform, mostly because I think it sends the message that you take what you are doing seriously. Superficial? Perhaps. But I’d rather be remembered because of a legal point that I made than because of what outfit I happened to have on.

But those are my thoughts. I know some out there disagree with me, and I’d be interested in hearing from you.



I also think the idea that women can wear whatever they want is ridiculous (and also a double standard if you consider that men have an even more limited range of fashion choices than women do).  Men can't wear Scottish kilts or crazily gel their hair in all directions or wear bizarre jewelry—in this instance, men and women should be held to the same standard.  Professional attire is rather boring, probably because the focus is supposed to be on your work and not your appearance.  I agree with Manamana that there is a certain degree of individuality that can be expressed through accessories, etc. (just as men can wear different ties or belt buckles), but in general, women should be drawing attention to their inner brilliance, not their fashion acumen.  The less attention you can draw to your physical self, the better, in my opinion.


I see a lot of attorneys, most of whom I don't remember unless we have a long conversation, or I work with them extensively rather than in passing.  The other day I saw a woman at work dressed in high boots and a short skirt, and when I mentioned her to a few colleagues, <i>everyone</i> knew who she was (most of us didn't know her name, but no one who had seen her forgot her since these kinds of outfits are apparently her trademark).  On the one hand, it might be a good thing to stand out from the crowd and be noticed.  On the other, I was so distracted by this woman's outfit that I don't pay much attention to anything else about her.  When I brought her up, all anyone seemed to know about her was that she dressed unprofessionally.  I don't think that kind of attention is helpful to young women attorneys.


I think the previous poster got it right.  You want to be remembered for what you did, not what you wore.  I've heard something similar in etiquette classes:  "The correct course of action is the one that causes the least embarrassment or disruption to the event."  You don't want your outfit, hair, jewelry to embarrass or be disruptive to your role as an attorney.

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