Law Firm Dress Code: Study Shows Formal Clothing Increases Creativity

Law firms tread a fine line between the traditional and the innovative.

You want to be a pioneer in law and policy, but have a predicable, steady-hand in practice.

However, amid talk of flexible schedules and alternative workplace management, long gone is the image of the three-piece suited lawyer behind a mahogany desk in offices with nautical décor. These days, a lawyer is only as good as his or her computer screen or case management software.

Founding partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan says he’s convinced that “sartorial freedom helps nurture legal genius” (via the careerist):

“What we [litigators] do is an exercise in creativity. You have a set of facts and the law–and you have to be creative with the two. Dressing casually improves our creativity.”

Urquhart believes that casual dressing helps break down barriers, so that young associates are “more likely to speak up” and “not be so intimidated by the trappings of power.”

“The only dress code we have is that you to have something between your feet and the carpet—and that’s because our insurance company requires it!”

But, before your firm succumbs completely to avant-garde open-plan workspaces or flip-flop Friday, consider a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, titled “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing.

In it, scientists found that when people felt more formally dressed as compared to their surrounding peers, they tended to think more creatively. In fact, one might glean from this article that traditional attire led to more innovative work, not alternative dress codes.

Offices around the world have been touting “casual Fridays” in an attempt to appeal to a younger generation. It has been assumed by employers and academics alike that the more comfortable the employee, the more productive they will be.

But, in a series of controlled experiments, scientists have now found that it is formal dress—as opposed to more casual attire—that makes people more likely to think of themselves as competent and rational.

In addition, people who felt more formally dressed than the people around them were more likely to think abstractly, “by that we mean, basically, holistic or big-picture thinking—so not focusing on the details but seeing bigger ideas, seeing how things connect from a more high-level perspective,” explained Michael Slepian, first author on the paper.

For example, in the experiment (via CNN):

“Slepian asked college students to come to the lab with two sets of clothing: an outfit they’d wear to a job interview, and an outfit they’d wear to class. (These were college students, so even the formal clothing they brought wasn’t too fancy—more like business casual, Slepian said—while the casual outfits tended toward shorts and flip-flops.) Some of the students were told to change into their interview clothes, and others were told to change into their casual ones. Both groups then answered two questionnaires, the first one asking them to rate how formally dressed they felt in comparison to the other students. The second was meant to determine their cognitive-processing style, asking them whether a given item fit within a particular category. For example, abstract thinkers—again, these are people who are more focused on the broader, bigger picture—would be more likely to answer that, sure, a camel could belong under the ‘vehicle’ category; concrete thinkers, on the other hand, would disagree, sticking to a stricter definition of the category.”

In law firm management, the ability to have big-picture thinking is crucial to firm leaders and case managers.

It’s not just that formally dressed employees are more creative, they also command more respect by their counterparts. Not only do you have more faith in yourself, others take note of your serious attire and have more confidence in you, as well.

In this particular experiment, a viable alternative explanation is that the novelty of dressing up—if it’s not something you are used to—contributes to these cognitive consequences of clothing. Even still, this argument stays in favor of Fancy Friday, rather than a casual one, for law firm environments.

So, for those more junior associates, it seems to ring true that you must dress for the job you want (and probably also the job you already have).

Law firms looking to get creative should focus on compensation, not clothing. Get some tips from C4CM’s webinar on Wednesday, June 24, 2015: “Re-inventing Associate Compensation: Pay Structures that Incentivize, Reward & Retain Non-Partner Track Attorneys.

During this interactive session, expert faculty will examine key factors in attracting, retaining and compensating career associates with an eye towards loyalty, fairness, and firm profitability. Plus, they’ll delve into examples of bonus programs for these non-traditional associates, and how to figure in merit, productivity and creativity into their compensation. You will also learn how to:

  • Use creativity, rather than conformity as a criteria for non-salary rewards
  • Utilize proven methods leading firms are using to create firm-building bonus structures for these associates
  • Build associate loyalty and reduce turnover
  • Increase associate awareness of firm business when they are not tasked as rainmakers
  • Evaluate career associate performance in addition to hours


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