Several years ago, when I was an aspiring language interpreter, my instructor told me during one training session that a smart interpreter should never dress better than his or her client. "You want to be like the oxygen," he said. "This means that you are irreplaceable to your client, but your importance is invisible at the same time."
Although I decided to pursue a career in law, I find what I learned at that training session to have merit. It reminds me that I am in a service profession that owes due respect to both the client and the audience.
Lawyers, like interpreters, are not in a profession that allows for full self expression. As a result, the dress code carries the burden of conveying to our clients and whomever we are trying to persuade the signal that we are confident and competent. Even though we have all been told not to judge someone by his or her look or dress, style is a very important communicator that lawyers should not overlook.
Business attire has long been considered to have the ability to empower. "I think people expect high-powered lawyers to look like high-powered lawyers," a partner at a New York-based firm once said. Business casual is difficult, however, because it can be interpreted in multiple ways and leaves too many options to the overly casual attorney.
A Wall Street Journal article in 2009 discussed the return of old-school power clothes at law firms during the economic downturn. Colored dress shirts with white collars have been big sellers according to the article. The article suggested that the return of "power clothes" resulted from the evaporation of feelings of job entitlement as unemployment rose. Attorneys, and particularly young attorneys, are more willing to set personal comfort aside in order to conform to rigid dress codes in hopes of ensuring job security.
Despite some trends toward the formal, business casual continues to gain traction in today's offices. In Seattle, a city known for its laid-back attitude, it may be difficult to find an office that requires a coat and tie at all times.
Unfortunately, there is no clear definition for "business casual." As its name suggests, it exists in the nebulous place between "casual" and "business formal." For men, it probably means no tie or coat required. For women, it could mean anything that is less than matching suit and shirt.
If business casual is confusing enough, casual Friday only makes the matter worse. Instead of telling people what to wear on a casual Friday, many firms choose to list out items that are not acceptable. Depending on where you are, blue jeans may or may not be okay for a casual Friday. Nearly everyone agrees that flip-flops have no place in the office environment.
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