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.

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