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Charlotte Clode

Partner, Fbc Manby Bowdler

What I wear matters. It really does

Practice Notes
What I wear matters. It really does


Why? Because no matter what your legal niche, we’re all in the business of relating to people. To do that, I need to feel comfortable and I need my clients to feel comfortable too

Dress codes have recently been a tricky subject for some legal firms, with even the comfy cardigan consigned to the charity shop pile by one well-known firm. The same firm asked its staff with long hair to make sure it was tied up – so they didn’t look like ‘pretty little things’.

The employment specialists among us could probably write a book about the do’s and don’ts of how far you can ask your staff to style themselves in a certain way.

It used to be that a business suit – for men and women – was the professional uniform for lawyers. I’m not quite old enough to have worn the Dynasty-style shoulder pad suits of the 1980s but when I think back to the days we were all in the office every day, suits were certainly the norm.

But when you combine a generational shift and a pandemic, the result is that working dress codes have changed.

As Millennials and Gen-Z become more relaxed about their working habits, workwear is becoming more relaxed too.

When you add in a pandemic period of pyjama bottoms and a smart top for Zoom calls, it’s clear the change is here to stay.

A survey last year by YouGov revealed that only seven per cent of people would say they wear ‘business attire’ at work. Apparently, only ten per cent are wearing a suit and our default description for what we put on for the office is ‘smart casual’.

Social media has certainly played a part in how we ‘see’ lawyers and others working in our profession. Most of our managing partner Neil Lloyd’s LinkedIn posts are him in running gear, training for or finishing one of any number of marathons across the globe!

You’ll often see me in my posts dressed for walking the dog but that doesn’t mean I’m going to turn up for work in my wellies.

Perhaps dressing for work is also about meeting expectations too. What does a lawyer look like? What if we don’t conform? What does what we wear say about how we do our jobs?

Even Hollywood has picked up on the strait-laced, formally dressed, lawyer theme. Audiences loved Reese Witherspoon’s totally pink-clad Elle Woods character striding her way into the courtroom – confounding anyone who thought that a big blond blow-dry, stilettos, and being armed with a Chihuahua equalled anything less than a great legal mind.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s not a pressure to look a certain way. In 2020, I was honoured to be recognised as Lawyer of the Year at the Modern Law Awards. I didn’t turn up for the awards do dressed in trainers and a tracksuit.

But this was me dressing for myself. It was a night out with colleagues and peers, celebrating the achievements of our profession and our firm, FBC Manby Bowdler. As a black tie awards night, the dinner jackets and posh frocks were both the expectation and in the majority. Show me a legal awards night out anywhere in 2024, and I bet you’ll still see the same.

But in my 18 years in this profession, the whole legal thing has become much more human.

The way we talk to clients – more human. The way we engage with each other – more human. The way we are considered by our employers – more human. The way we dress – more human!

Not only is that more comfortable for me and helps me to feel more confident (because I’m not too warm in a suit or wearing a skirt and heels when I’d rather be in smart trainers) but I know that others relate to me more easily when I don’t look like I’ve stepped out of a court room.

Society has changed and the legal profession needs to change with it – or risk forever being stereotyped as out of date and out of touch.

That’s why I dress for my day. I dress down for my professional commitments. I dress for the occasion and not the career!