Friday, February 20, 2009

Business Casual, or, What (Not) to Wear, Revisited

I wrote a while ago about the dilemma that women attorneys often face when getting dressed in the morning. In my post back on election day, November 4, 2008, I mused on my reactions to the wardrobes of women in politics. Women in business are judged the same way, and I've observed many times over the years that what a woman wears dramatically affects how she is perceived as a professional. That November post has been one of my most read, which is surprising to me because I think many of my other posts are either smarter or funnier.

But the point, I suppose, of the objective statistical analysis of my blog hits is that readers google "what women lawyers should wear." I realize now that although I pointed out in my earlier post that the appearance of a woman lawyer really matters, I didn't give much advice about what proper attire is. Sorry about that.

If you send me a photo of yourself dressed for business, and tell me what your agenda is for the day, I can tell you whether you're likely to be viewed as a competent lawyer in San Francisco. But that wouldn't necessarily be helpful in North Carolina, North Dakota, New Mexico, or New York. It all depends on context. But with 20 years experience in hand, I suppose I do have some opinions, so here they are:

1 If it doesn't fit, don't wear it. Get a good tailor and spend the money to have your clothes altered. Being under-tall, I have been challenged by too long sleeves and too tight… stuff. Suffice it to say that I finally learned the hard way and found a good tailor.

2 If it is worn out, don't wear it. Yes I know it is a pain to go shopping but you just have to replace that suit.

3 Business casual is a misnomer. For a woman lawyer, this means dress for business. If you wouldn't want to be seen dressed as you are by your most promising new client, it is not business casual, it is casual. Every event I am invited to seems to suggest business casual. Perhaps that is helpful to men (no tie required, dress shirt and trousers) but it is completely unhelpful guidance to me if it is professional event. I just read that as business attire, period.

4 When in doubt, dress up, not down. Much better to be dressed too professionally, than too casually. I love to bring associates in to meetings with clients, and sometimes it is spur of the moment, but it really doesn't help when they show up dressed as if going to a law school class. Lawyers who are already on Best Lawyers lists and have their name on the front door can usually dress however they like; the rest of us mere mortals have to dress to impress all the time.

5 Find a Professional Shopper, or, add five reliable retailers to your Favorites. It took me years to figure out an efficient way to manage a professional wardrobe because I had no money, no time and no help. Most women lawyers I know don't particularly enjoy shopping for clothes and shoes: it's very time consuming, very expensive, and except for the models who became lawyers, it's a reminder of an ongoing discouraging relationship with the dressing room mirrors. It would be ideal if professional shoppers were affordable, but if that's really not in your budget, find a few web retailers that consistently have business attire that fits your context, with sizes that fit, and just order lots of clothes each season that you can take to your tailor to determine whether they can be altered to fit you and look good. It is a necessary cost of doing business.

6 Shoes matter. If there is anything I hate more than shopping for business wear, it is shopping for shoes. Ergo, When shopping, sort shoes on your favorite shoe retailer website, most expensive to least. Then, order away, get every pair you like, walk around in them on your bedroom carpet for hours, and then return the ones that don't work. They are easy to return. And throw away every old pair with shredded heals.

7 Little Black Dress. Always works for evening events. Buy five of them (several for warm weather, several for cold and 3 different sizes) and you're all set.

In any event, if you want to send that photo, send it to I'll respond right away.



  1. Great Post! As a person who loves, loves, loves shopping it's hard to imagine anyone who doesn't. Luckily we have the internet to make it less time consuming and easier to compare choices. We launched to help busy women find chic and professional work clothes in a fraction of the time.

  2. This is a useful post and I agree wholeheartedly that one's appearance has, fairly or unfairly, a tremendous effect on how that person is perceived.

    Actually, while the post didn't take a position on whether a judgment based on appearance is fair or not, I believe that it is, to some extent, fair and proper. While appearance may not always be an accurate indication, I do not think it is necessarily wrong to consider the appearance of a professional - a person with whom you will entrust detail-oriented work - in determining whether to hire, entrust, etc. that person. Indeed, if one is unable to keep his shoes shined and his shirts clean, is it really wrong to think that he will have trouble with the details of your legal work? Again, I don't think that judgment will always be accurate, and the appearance factor should be only one of many factors considered, but how one attends to his/her appearance may be telling.

    Additionally, dress and appearance can also be indicators of one's judgment. If someone believes that a leisure suit presents a good image, I don't think I would want to rely on that person's judgment in analyzing my legal issues!

    At the end of the day, everyone (man or woman) should take the core of this post to heart - what you wear matters. And I would add that I don't think it is wrong or unfair that it does.

  3. Thank you so much for this. As a law student who is about to start my firm summer, I was looking for straightforward advice. You gave it.

  4. Hello everyone

    I love business ... I'm about to start my new business along with my sister ... We are always looking for information to be updated in business ....

    Thank you very much for this very interesting article

  5. whoa!!!, you had a passion in blogging, thumbs up for your work of love.. Hehe very inspiring ideas,

    anyway I'm william
    mind if I put a link back to you?

    see my works here ------> 3 button suit

  6. The greater the difference between this foreign culture and the American culture you're familiar with, the more pronounced these feelings might be. The technical term for this is "culture shock."