Law Firm Summer Events

19 05 2008

The summer at the law firm is one of the greatest experiences that law school has to offer. After spending nine months trapped in the library pouring over case notes and outlines, you get to work an easy schedule, eat delicious, expensive meals and be treated to all of the finest things the city has to offer. You also get more money in one pay check than you’ve ever seen before in your life, although this becomes less exciting when you realize that all that money is going straight back to your school in the form of tuition for the following year. All in all, though, it’s great to be a summer.

Things to keep in mind when dressing for summer events:

First, you should always check the attire before you go. There are a ton of events and they are hard to keep track of, so, much like the boy scouts, you should always be prepared. Also, most events take place right after work, so you will need to plan in advance and bring a change of clothes with you to the office in the morning.

Second, you should look nice no matter what type of event you are going to. Although some events may be less formal than others, any time you are interacting with the lawyers at the firm, they are judging you. In fact, the entire summer is one long period of probation while they decide whether you’re right for a permanent position at the firm. And we have all heard the horror stories about summers who didn’t get offers because of summer events. With that in mind, you should never wear clothes that are dirty, slutty, ripped, stained, offensive, or grungy. Also, you shouldn’t get drunk, take off all your clothes, and jump in a river.

Here are some helpful hints on decoding the “attire” section of an event invitation:

Casual: Jeans! Or kahkis. If an invitation says “casual” though, you should still dress smart casual.

Smart Casual: Not dressed up, but not frumpy. Remember it’s business on the top (blouse, sweater or collared shirt), party on the bottom (jeans or khakis).

Business Casual: Wear your work clothes.

Business Formal: Wear a suit.

Cocktail Attire: Men should wear slacks and a collared shirt. Women should wear a dress or skirt with heels.

Festive Attire: aka themey. It’s kind of like a corporatized costume party, so instead of wearing a grass skirt and coconut bikini, you wear flip flops and sunglasses.

Black Tie Optional: Men should wear a suit or a tuxedo. Women should wear a gown.

Black Tie: Men should wear a tuxedo. Women should wear a gown.

Southern Law Firms

19 05 2008

The typical dress code for law firms in the South is business appropriate, although some offices may still be business formal. The business appropriate dress code is somewhere between business casual and business formal. Associates are usually allowed to wear business casual clothing as the situation permits, but for any activity that requires an attorney to be out of the office, a suit is required.

What You Should Wear

For the Ladies. Because the South tends to be more traditional in terms of dress, female attorneys have more leeway to wear feminine clothing, like skirts and dresses, which would not be considered appropriate in other places. I got an insider tip that wrap dresses are very popular. Hosiery is not required for business casual skirts and dresses. Otherwise, it’s back to slacks, collared shirts and sweaters. Shoe choices include pumps, sling-backs, peep toe and open toe shoes.

For the Gentlemen. Men would be well-advised to stick to slacks and a collared shirt or sweater, although it couldn’t hurt to throw in a tie or a jacket once in a while. Men can also wear khakis and polo shirts, but only if the firm has Casual Fridays, and it’s Friday.

What You Should Not Wear

Don’t wear: jeans, shorts, capri pants, sleeveless shirts or athletic wear.

East Coast Law Firms

19 05 2008

East Coast law firms are neither as formal as their counterparts in the South and the Midwest, nor as casual as their counterparts on the West Coast. Even within the East Coast, however, there is a wide range of styles. Of the three major law firm cities, Boston is the most formal, Washington, D.C. is the most casual, and New York is in the middle.

New York

New York firms fall in the middle of the business casual spectrum. Official office dress codes have become more relaxed in recent years, now permitting everything short of jeans and flip-flops, but typical attorney attire remains more formal. Khakis and polo shirts are rare and it is not unusual for men to wear ties to the office. Women should keep their shoulders covered and only wear skirts that fall at or below the knee (although wearing stockings with a skirt is not required).

New York is also the world’s most fabulous city, so dress up and look good. As long as all your important parts are covered, you can wear edgier styles, cooler accessories, and way higher heels. Flats are considered office appropriate, but you didn’t watch six seasons of Sex and the City just to wear flats to work. I mean, what’s the point of a six-figure salary if you don’t rock Manolos, right?

Washington, D.C.

Law firms in Washington, D.C. tend to be the most casual firms on the East Coast. I mean, the city practically invented Casual Fridays. This means that in addition to typical business casual clothing, associates can wear khakis, polos, capris, and open toe shoes (which—trust me—you will want to take advantage of during the ridiculous summer humidity). You lucky dogs also get denim Fridays.


Perhaps as a result of being so historical, Boston is a little more old school. The law firms have been there forever and so have the partners so don’t be surprised if you see a lot of suits around the office. Most office dress codes only require business casual, and associates should feel free to take advantage of that, but don’t get too casual or you will start to hear grumbling in the corner offices. For those who don’t like hints and innuendo, this means you should stick with dark colors and conservative styles, and minimize deviation from collared shirts and slacks.

Midwest Law Firms

27 04 2008

Law firms in the Midwest tend to be on the more formal end of the spectrum. Most offices have business casual dress codes but there are still a few that are business formal. Check before you go.

Business Formal

If the firm has a business formal dress code, you should have four or five suits on hand that you can rotate during the work week. Having eight to ten shirts and ties should give your wardrobe plenty of variation. Be sure to dry clean often. Once you have been at the firm for a longer period of time, you can start expanding your closet.

Business Casual

Firms that have business casual dress codes tend to err on the formal side.

For the Gentlemen. Men generally wear slacks and button down collared shirts (without a jacket and tie). Khakis and polo shirts are less common and are usually only worn when the firm has some version of “casual Fridays.”

I recommend sticking with dark colored slacks (black, brown, navy and gray) and button down shirts or conservative sweaters, especially for younger associates in firms with older, more traditional attorneys. Stick with oxford shoes or other nice leather work shoes.

For the Ladies. Women have a broader range of clothing options but should still stick to a more formal wardrobe. The safest thing to wear is a sweater or button-down shirt paired with nice slacks or a conservative skirt. As far as shoes go, stick with closed toed heels or modest peep-toes. Keep accessories minimal and conservative.

Some offices are slightly more casual, in which case you can get away with short-sleeve blouses, open-toed heels and flats. In these offices, you can also get a little more creative with accessories.

Clothes almost always considered too casual in a Midwest law firm include khakis, Capri pants (even nice ones), and sandals.

West Coast Law Firms

27 04 2008

There are a lot of reasons to like the west coast. It has sun, beaches, and beautiful people. There are celebrities galore and everywhere you go has valet. But most importantly, it’s where I’m from and that makes it awesome.

Perhaps as a result of being in a more relaxed atmosphere, west coast law firms take a more relaxed approach to dress codes than their east coast counterparts. This is true even if they are two different offices of the same firm. The firm dress code is still business casual, but it leans more toward casual than business. As one LA law firm associate describes it, it’s about as dressed up as you would be if you went to the Olive Garden.

So what do you wear to the Olive Garden?

For the Ladies. You can do all the standard business casual stuff but throw in khakis, capri’s, dresses (solid and print) and any open-toed shoes that don’t look like flip-flops. Because the west coast is really faddy, you can also have fun with accessories: wide belts, chunky necklaces, big dangly earrings, the whole nine yards.

For the Gentlemen. In addition to all the standard business casual stuff, you can wear khakis and (at some firms) polo shirts. You don’t need a tie or a jacket unless you’re going to court. You should still avoid tennis shoes, shorts and T-shirts.

I’ve heard mixed things about visible tattoos and unconventional piercings but there are some firms where you can get away with it. Also, if your firm has casual Fridays, that means you can wear jeans (since you can wear khakis any other day).

Moving East to West

For those of you who are moving from the east coast to the west coast, here are some tips to help you avoid looking like a tourist. The following types of clothing will be a dead give away:

  • Seersucker
  • Boat shoes
  • Pearls
  • Pastels*
  • Plaid pastels
  • Outfits that are entirely black (New Yorkers, that means you)

Also, the whole Labor Day thing doesn’t apply.

*A Note on Pastels. On the west coast, pastels serve the primary function of allowing men to self-identify as being openly gay. When I lived in California, I was not aware that this was not a national rule and moving to the east coast subsequently wrecked havoc on my gaydar. If you are moving to the west coast and wish to self-identify as openly gay, wearing pastel colors is an easy way to do so. This is especially true of the color pink, or anything in the pink family. For those who do not wish to be identified as gay, you should know that (1) west coasters are largely unaware of the whole east-coast-pastel thing and (2) the pink rule does include the shirt you got from jcrew labeled “salmon.”

Public Defender’s Office

27 04 2008

If you have pink hair, dreadlocks or tattoos and want to be a lawyer, then working for a Public Defender’s office might be the job for you. As legal jobs go, defending the public seems to be one of the least exacting when it comes to appearance. The reason for this is practical. As one of my friends commented, public defenders investigate their own cases and meet with clients, and it is hard to do either of these things effectively in a suit.

The dress code for a Public Defender’s office is usually “nice” casual, so pretend like every day is dinner with your grandparents. You know, not too formal, not too casual, not too slutty. You will, of course, need to wear a suit if you’re in court, but when the hearing is over you can swap the pantsuit for khakis and start running around town to find your next witness.

For the Ladies.

Stuff you could wear: non-jean pants, collared shirts, blouses, sweaters, skirts at or below the knee, nice capri’s, flats, pumps, and open-toed shoes. Some Public Defender’s offices permit jeans, and if that’s the case then take advantage.

Stuff you couldn’t wear: flip-flops (and their winter equivalent, uggs), tank tops, graphic Ts, anything that could be considered gym clothes, and clothes that are too tight or revealing.

For the Gentlemen.

Stuff you could wear: khakis, slacks, collared button-up shirts, polos, and sweaters. You could probably wear dark sneakers or go one step up and wear more causal-looking leather shoes (think Aldo or Steve Madden for men). You can wear jeans if the office permits it.

Stuff you couldn’t wear: shorts, flip-flops, running shoes, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, fleeces, and sportswear.

District Attorney’s Offices

26 04 2008

DA’s offices are usually business formal (and in case you haven’t been keeping up, that means suits everyday). This is largely motivated by practical concerns, since DAs and ADAs have to be in court so often. That said, the business formal dress code can be followed with varying degrees of precision, so depending on where you are, you could get creative.

For the Ladies. You should buy at least three or four suits, each with skirt and pants that you can switch up during the week. If you’re in a more conservative office, stick with dark colors and below-the-knee skirts. If you’re in a less formal office, you can get more creative with colors and patterns (I heard of an ADA who wears polka dot suits), but keep in mind that powder blue is flattering on no one.*

Underneath the suit, you can wear the standard collared shirt or a less-formal shell. Stick with close-toed shoes (I recommend black or brown 2-inch pumps). I would stay away from heavy makeup and enormous accessories but a little of each couldn’t hurt.

For the Gentlemen. You should buy four or five suits to rotate during the week. I figure if you wear one suit on Monday and keep rotating, come Friday no one will remember the Monday suit. Pair the suit with a nice tie and a button-up, collared dress shirt. Top off the outfit with dark leather shoes, a matching belt and black socks.

Despite the seemingly limited range of options, you can get creative at the margins. Get some pants with cuffs and some pants without cuffs (but more without cuffs, cuffs are out). Get some French-cuff shirts and some button-cuff shirts. Vary the type of collar. Experiment with different tie knots. See? Suits are fun!*

For the Staff. DA’s office staff can wear business casual.

Dressing it down. When attorneys aren’t in court, the appearance of formality is less important. In the office, most attorneys work without their jackets on, and women can swap their pumps for flip-flops or uggs. Just don’t forget to grab your jacket and swap your shoes when you’re called down to court, cuz damn it, you’re a prosecutor.

*For more information on suits, see the post on Job Interviews.


25 04 2008

Predicting how to dress for a clerkship is a tricky thing to do because it depends almost entirely on the judge you work for. I’ve heard of judges who require attire ranging from business formal to jeans and a T-shirt.  On your first day, the safest thing to do is to wear a suit and take it from there. Once you get started, you should take your cues from the judge you clerk for, the other clerks, and the other judges on the court.

In my experience, clerks are frequently in and out of the courtroom so, in general, you should opt for more formal attire. If the judge does not require business formal attire on a regular basis, you should keep a suit on hand, in case you want to (or have to) go to court.

Despite the wide variation in clerkship attire, the average dress code seems to be conservative business casual.

Here’s what you do:

For the Ladies. On the bottom, go with pants or a conservative skirt (just below the knee is best). One the top, wear a collared shirt or sweater (or both). Stick to dark colors and conservative styles. Clothes that are less likely to be acceptable include: print dresses, flowy colorful skirts, Capri pants, sleeveless shirts, open-toed shoes, and shoes with a high heel. Keep makeup natural-looking and accessories conservative.

For the Gentlemen. Men should wear dress shirts and dark colored slacks (gray, brown, black, and navy). Maybe throw a sweater on over it. Stick with conservative black or brown leather shoes. Don’t wear khakis, polo shirts, or tennis shoes. Avoid jewelry other than a watch and wedding ring. And finally, if you’re starting work right out of school, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a haircut. Yes, that means you.

Going to Court

25 04 2008

Ah court. A symbol of justice, the litigator’s Holy Grail, and the setting of so many acclaimed television dramas. Courts not only form the core of the American legal tradition but hold an iconic place in American society as a whole. And if we learned anything from Judge Larry Seidlin in the Anna Nicole Smith case, it’s that court is awesome.

But what are you going to wear?

Suit Up. For those who are unfamiliar, court tends to be a pretty formal place. There are tight security systems, strict rules of procedure, judges in flowing robes, and gavels. Out of respect to the court, attorneys are expected to wear suits at all times when in the courtroom. Whether you are responsible for giving an impassioned closing statement to a jury or a third-string trial attorney who spends most of game time on the bench, the suit is required.

Some Caveats

1) Just Visiting. If you are visiting a court for entertainment (or education) and plan to spend the whole time sitting in the back, then nice business causal will suffice. Wear nice shoes, slacks (or a knee length skirt) and a sweater or collared shirt.

2) You’re Not Working as a Lawyer. Another exception to the suit rule is if you are working for a court or a court-related agency but are not working as a lawyer. If, for example, you work for child services or in the court intake office, the rule of thumb for the courtroom is usually conservative business casual (at least in the courts where I’ve worked). The actual office you work in may be less formal, even if it’s in the courthouse, but you should dress more formally on days where you know you will be before a judge.

3) Define “suit.” While attorneys are required to wear a suit to court, the combination of clothing that is considered a suit depends on who you work for and what kind of court you are in. By way of example, I knew several attorneys working in legal services that went into housing court on a regular basis wearing flowing black pants, a black T-shirt and a gray blazer. I’ve also heard of some Public Defenders offices with a similar style. So matching—not always necessary. It’s not that I’m recommending this look, but FYI you can save the Armani for SCOTUS.

Legal Services Offices and NGOs

18 04 2008

Not all lawyers wear suits.

Last summer I worked at a firm in New York that offered us the opportunity to do a two-week rotation in a legal services office, and I decided to take it. After spending two months in a cushy office in Midtown Manhattan, I threw on a pair of gray slacks, a white collared shirt, and some black and white tweed pumps and headed to Brooklyn. I showed up at the legal services office to a room full of people in jeans, T-shirts and flip flops, and was greeted with, “oh, you must be the new girl from the firm.”

I know it’s obvious, but for the sake of emphasis it’s good to keep in mind that what it is appropriate to wear in one context may not be appropriate in another.

Casual is the Norm

In the wide spectrum of legal contexts that you may encounter, the non-profit sector tends to be the least exacting when it comes to clothes. There may be offices that require more formal attire, but as a general rule, legal services offices and non-profit organizations have casual dress codes. One of my former supervisors described the dress code this way: some lawyers dress up to make their clients feel respected. In order to make our clients feel respected, we treat them with respect.

What You Should Wear

First, as always, try to find out from someone in the office what the dress code is. You don’t want to show up in jeans if everyone else is in biz cas.

If the firm dress code is casual, I recommend wearing clothes that are slightly more formal than the clothes worn by the supervising attorneys. Younger associates have the obvious disadvantage of looking less experienced and this can be exacerbated if you show up to work every day in jeans, flip flops and a T-shirt; even if this outfit is technically acceptable in the office. The trick is to wear clothes that are nice enough to inspire confidence in your clients but not so formal that you make your clients feel uncomfortable or intimidated.

Acceptable clothing choices include: nice jeans, khakis, sweaters, collared shirts, blouses, polos and nicer cotton shirts.

Acceptable shoe choices usually include sneakers, dress shoes, flats, and heels.

In some offices, tank tops, flip flops, T-shirts, uggs and the like are also acceptable, but you should get a good read on the office style before you venture into these more casual clothing choices. Even if these options are permitted, I recommend using them sparingly, and avoiding them when you have client meetings.

Finally, most legal services jobs require frequent court appearances, so be sure to keep a suit in the office.

What You Should Not Wear

Casual, but not too casual. Because you are still working with clients and other lawyers, it’s a good idea not to get too carried away with casualness. With that in mind, try to avoid the following:

  • Clothes with holes, rips or stains.
  • Clothes with offensive logos or writing.
  • Sweats or pajamas.
  • Clothing that is really revealing.

In general, just try to look nice. Remember that no matter where you are, you’re still a professional and your wardrobe should reflect that.