Too Fashion-forward Taking Your Firm Two Steps Back? How Lawyers Dress For Success


Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Oscar de la Renta may not be names that law firm professionals recognize. They’re not famous attorneys, judges, or law enforcement. Instead, these are names of a few of the world’s elite fashion police.

Right now, Paris, France, is abound with models, designers, celebrities, and those photographers who capture them all. It’s called Fashion Week. But, why should we be concerned?

One reason is that Americans make up the world’s worst-dressed society.

Among the hello-kitty clad Japanese and the Birkenstock-sporting Germans, it’s the constantly-too-casual Americans who are our chief culprits. The United States tops the world rankings for the worst-dressed tourists.

But, more importantly, Paris fashion week is a reminder that diversity in style, appropriate attire, and cultural differences affect every workplace and profession.

We don’t all strut the catwalk, but we do walk the office corridor. And, it turns out, the way we dress has an impact on both employee morale and productivity.

“Continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals and relaxed productivity,” and “leads to a decrease in company loyalty and increase in tardiness,” writes Stephen Goode in his article, “Clothes do make the man, after all,” for Insight on the News. Goode is summarizing the findings of research psychologist, Jeffery L. Magee, who surveyed 500 firms in 1997 and 1998 about workplace attire.

Psychologically, the way a person dresses affects how they feel. So, if a person is more comfortable in his clothes, he may feel a boost in morale or increased satisfaction at his job.

At the same time, if a person is dressed causally, he may exhibit more informal behavior at work, including slower response time, lower productivity, or a less professional attitude.

Berryman-Fink (1989) found that workplace attire possessed a signaling effect, whereby casual dress signaled incompetency and decreased perceived credibility on the part of an employer and client about his employee.

Furthermore, in a 1999 Jackson Lewis poll, firms who had “dress-down days” at their offices also had higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness.

The majority of firms adopt casual workplace attire as a way to attract new employees and retain old ones. However, in today’s economic environment, are such kitschy additions to employee benefits packages really necessary? Might they be detrimental, even?

Attorneys are part of a service-oriented profession. They see clients frequently, attend depositions, and go to court. Formal dress—like passing the bar or possessing computer skills—is simply part of the job.

If your firm already has a casual-dress day, Paul J. Siegel, a Jackson Lewis partner, advises:

“Employers should monitor workplace behavior to ensure that a more casual manner of dress does not lead to reduced professionalism. Workplace standards must be maintained or there will be an increase in the perception or incidence of harassment or discrimination.”

With this in mind, ask yourself whether or not your firm’s current workplace dress code (or the de facto choice of attire in your office) needs a makeover.

Even Paris Fashion Week would agree that timeless style is far better than risking a passing fad. In law, wearing a classic suit and tie will never be considered a faux pas.

-WB

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