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Clare Rodway

Managing Director, Kysen PR

Quotation Marks
I put time in to re-thinking my wardrobe, because I wanted people to perceive me differently. It can be hard to be seen in a new light when you’ve been in the same chambers for so many years - Sarah Longden, Quadrant Chambers

Casual dress codes in the legal profession: a new standard?

Casual dress codes in the legal profession: a new standard?


Survey shows professionals believe dressing smartly is unnecessary for Zoom and in-person meetings

A recent LinkedIn survey by the Law Firm Marketing Club, posing the question“Is it unprofessional to dress casually for Zoom meetings compared to in-person meetings?” revealed that a majority of professionals today believe dressing smart is no longer important in either scenario.As one respondent put it, “professionalism doesn’t equate to what you wear, but more so to the quality of your work and how you treat other people”, and others concurred. There’s a lot in this. As the old adage goes, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.Are the days of judging colleagues, clients and suppliers by the cut of their suit over? Should we worry about ‘standards slipping’? Or should we embrace this new attitude as a far more enlightened approach, more appropriate for the modern day?

Let’s take a look first at what has brought about this change.

At one time the prevailing, archetypal image of a successful lawyer was an Anglo-Saxon, blue-blooded, white male in a Jermyn Street suit and brogues polished to a mirror finish. But thankfully access to legal careers has much improved for people of different sexes, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds - and with this expectations of what a successful lawyer looks like have changed. In amongst the suits today, turbans, hijabs and of course dresses are the norm.

Improved diversity and inclusion have significantly transformed acceptable dress codes in the legal profession, making them more flexible and representative of various cultures and identities. Traditionally, strict and conservative attire dominated the legal field, often sidelining those whose cultural or personal expressions didn’t conform to these norms. However, as the profession has embraced a more inclusive ethos, dress codes have evolved to accommodate a broader range of styles, alongside conventional suits. This shift not only fosters a more welcoming and respectful environment for all legal professionals but also enriches the profession by reflecting the diverse society it serves. This is certainly to be welcomed.

The globalisation of business has had its impact too. Even the strictest City dress codes have changed, with a more continental style becoming the norm. Where once ties were obligatory for men, this has been replaced by a fashion for super smart shirts worn with collars open, ties looking old-fashioned and out of time, unless worn with a full three-piece suit with waistcoat. And for women, a number of high-profile employment tribunal cases stopped bosses being able to insist on female staff wearing high-heeled shoes, the argument being they were bad for health, sparking a new fashion for stylish flats.

The pandemic was another catalyst, changing our idea of acceptable dress. We spent years Zooming or Teamsing into each others homes, sometimes with children and pets interrupting the flow. We saw colleagues online, including senior ones, in their trackies (some in their slobbies or even in dressing gowns!) Indeed the lines between our professional and personal personas blurred as never before.And now in our new, post-Covid, hybrid working environment, with most of us working from home at least two days a week, the expectation to suit up for work in the way we did previously seems outdated and out of place. It’s natural that people no longer stand on ceremony in quite the same way as they used to. Much of this is good. As the respondent in the LinkedIn survey said, people’s professionalism should be judged by the quality of their work and how they treat others.

At the same time it’s interesting to note that image consultancy and personal styling is big business. Professionals will pay thousands of pounds for advice on how to dress to impress.We once provided just this advice to an Old Bailey judge. She wanted to elevate the way she came across, as she was hoping to land a consultancy role in one of the big global firms after finishing at the bench.The brief we wrote for the image consultancy for her workplace wardrobe and makeup (we helped her with her weekend look as well) was challenging, as we had to explain the restrictions of dressing for court: ‘During her working hours our client will be wearing a black robe over her clothing and she will be seated on a platform some distance from others in the room. This needs to be factored in to your advice to her on her clothing and makeup’.

Another lawyer client asked for help with his image when we staged a high level round table discussion event for him, to parachute him in to a new sector, and the delegates we secured were of a much higher calibre than he was used to. The new look we gave him was not just about helping him make a good impression on these new prospective clients, but boosting his confidence, in what he feared would be a scary environment. He tended to dress in very washed out colours which made him look tired, and his hair was often scruffy. Our image consultancy partners dressed him subtly in colours that brought out a fresher look in his complexion and highlighted his bright blue eyes. Immediately he looked on top of his game. He thoroughly enjoyed the event and made some excellent and enduring business connections.

Why do people spend this money and time on their appearance, when dress codes are so much more relaxed? In short, it’s not so much about dressing to ‘fit in’ any more, showing you’re a member of the club, in the way it was back in the day.It’sall about what your clothes can dofor you.

The context may have changed, but two key principles remain the same: first, the way you dress signals a lot to others about you, your professional personality - ie your unique mix of discipline, creativity, success, approachability, etc - and by association that of your firm or chambers. Clothes can help you project authority and encourage people to take you seriously. It is an important part of your brand.And second, the clothes you wear can also speak toyou, either giving you confidence when facing a difficult person, meeting or task, or alternatively doing nothing to help, or even actively undermining your self belief. Particularly for those in roles that are about managing others or giving advice, often you will want to use everything in your professional toolkit to underline your authority and get people to follow your lead, and your choice of clothes can be a part of this. Confident, appropriate dressing, working in tandem with your professional expertise - and with good communication skills to put your experience and knowledge across - can help you be seen and listened to. Conversely, if you pay no attention to what you wear, you’re just making the job harder for yourself.

The crux, though, is to think about your personal brand and dress accordingly. Two contrasting examples show how this works…

Sarah Longden has just been promoted to the top management role at Quadrant Chambers, Chief Operations Officer, after seven years leading their marketing and business development. She tells me, “As I began the transition to this new role three months ago, I put time in to re-thinking my wardrobe, because I wanted people to perceive me differently. It can be hard to be seen in a new light when you’ve been in the same chambers for so many years. People’s ideas about you can naturally be very fixed. Clothing is one way to signal I am now operating at a different level.”Sarah has always been a snappy dresser - clean lines, bold colours or monochrome, nice fabrics, a wonderful line in brogues and other flat shoes - and an immaculate short, cropped haircut. Always pristine, underlining the disciplined approach she brings to her work - she’s always on top of everything - yet at the same time she looks interesting and creative, which she most definitely is. Together with the high standards of excellence she brings to everything she does at Quadrant, she uses her clothes to assert she’s a professional force to be reckoned with and a person to be listened to.But whereas before, in her business development roles, she was more about dresses, now she’s favouring sharp trouser and skirt suits, to signal her leadership status.“I’ve enjoyed the switch,” she tells me, “But it’s been a learning curve. Without thinking, I opted for sober navy and black suits, then gradually realised that’s just not me, I felt a little beige - I need colour! I’m sticking with the tailored suits and sharp cuts over the dresses, but I’ve just invested in a bright, electric blue suit and another in neon pink! I now feel I recognise ‘me’ in my new work persona. It’s not just about signalling and how you are perceived but about how they make you feel.”

Colour is key to another big personality in the legal word: Conscious Solutions founder David Gilroy is famous for wearing an orange DJ at black tie events. His web design and digital marketing offering is all about helping legal businesses stand out, so he leads by example. And if you meet him at other times, you’ll see an item of orange clothing somewhere on his person - a T-shirt or trainers for example - always.

David has a very different type of professional persona to Sarah.She is about cool professionalism, skillfully using her 30-plus years experience of barrister and law firm marketing to gently persuade the lawyers in her care to modernise and embrace new ideas. David’s brand on the other hand is all about cheek and challenging the status quo - to the point of irreverence at times. Check out his LinkedIn feed and you’ll see what I mean. But both are using their clothes to signal their unique professional personas and help their careers.

We have learned to be more human and open through the pandemic, and this will have a bearing on the professional personas people want to project and how to dress to do this.The lesson here is not about ditching dress codes and ‘goingcasual’ with no further thought.It’s about thinking through what your clothes say about you in this changed context. The way you dress is as valuable a tool as ever - giving you confidence personally in the uniqueness of what you have to offer, and projecting this to others. Don’t miss the opportunity!

And for managers, wanting the people you lead to smarten up, but not knowing how to ask, a good starting point might be to share these principles and make the case about how intelligent dressing can help their careers. It’s good for any professional to reflect on what’s special about them and the qualities they have to offer, and the many different ways they can put this across including by how they dress. Give them the tools to think this through, communicate the benefits, and they’ll work out the answer for themselves.

For younger professionals reading this, unconvinced that mindful workplace dressing can make a difference to how they are perceived, just look at some of the most successfulinstagrammers and the time and effort they put in to crafting their image. The same rules apply. Mindful workplace dressing is for your own benefit.

And let’s not forget, distinguishing your office and home wardrobes can also be an excellent way to create a boundary between work and leisure, which is good for everyone’s mental health.