The legal profession hit the press for all the wrong reasons a couple of weeks ago when a partner at an international law firm suggested junior lawyers shouldn’t wear brown shoes with a blue suit. Whatever the merits of this argument (spoiler alert: there aren’t any), it raises an important point for candidates.
There’s a scene in the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny when the judge takes exception to the clothes worn by lawyer Vinny, memorably played by Joe Pesci. Pesci is attired in a black long-sleeve T-shirt tucked into black trousers for his first appearance before the bench. “A little informal, aren’t we?” Judge Haller observes.
Goodness knows what he would have said if Vinny had committed the even more egregious sartorial ‘sin’ of wearing a blue suit with brown shoes. We’ll never know. Perhaps the old adage, ‘No brown in town’ doesn’t apply in deepest Louisiana.
It seems that it very much does in London town though. A couple of weeks ago an unnamed partner in an international law firm caused quite a stir at a conference at the Hilton Tower Bridge when he advised trainee lawyers: “Don’t wear brown shoes with a blue suit.”
The quote was picked up by a journalist and posted on Twitter, where it was pounced on by lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Tweets in response included: “This is silly”, “The partner should get out of others’ wardrobes, or just get out more,” and “Brown shoes — of the right shade — are right for a blue suit.”
The story then appeared in Legal Cheek and the Telegraph, with the latter pointing out that “wearing brown shoes with a blue suit has long been the scorn of those who adhere to the ‘City dress code’”.
More importantly though, it highlighted the fact that candidates are often judged on their appearance rather than their abilities and seems to add weight to the results of a social mobility study carried out into recruitment in the banking industry.
“For men, the wearing of brown shoes with a business suit is generally, though not always, considered unacceptable by and for British bankers,” the report says. Echoing what many say about legal recruitment, it concludes that firms recruit from a tiny pool of elite universities usually on the basis of whether people ‘fit in’. The result is that poorer applicants can miss out even if they have the required skills because they don’t dress, speak and behave in the same way as other candidates. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In fairness to the unnamed partner, his comment may have been taken out of context. Firms place a huge emphasis on ‘fit’ and stepping outside the norm can send a signal that a potential trainee isn’t suitable for that firm. I’m not saying this is right, as clearly it isn’t. But it is a fact of life. It’s hardly news that many in the legal profession are so hidebound that they judge people’s merits on the basis of what clothes they wear.
An article last year in the Law Society Gazette pointed out that many firms now have a more casual dress code, but this can be even more of a minefield.
One piece of advice in the article is “to look at what the client wears, then tone it down”. It helpfully continues: “Lawyers can be more casual around creative-industry clients and entrepreneurs. But it’s possible to go too far – architects favour extravagant glasses, but you don’t want them thinking you’re making fun of them by turning up one day sporting enormous red specs.”
There’s a serious point behind this and a similar one was made by one tweeter. “Here’s some advice from someone who chooses between large international law firms. Stop all dressing the same. You look like boring automatons. We don’t want drones, we want people.”
Presumably, the original comment about brown shoes and blue suits was directed mainly at men. Women have it far worse. In an article titled,The Minefield of Workwear for Women Lawyers, Kayleigh Zioli points out that “women in the corporate and professional setting still face additional societal judgement on their performance and leadership based on what they are wearing and how they present themselves”. Zioli concludes that some women spend an incredible amount of time and money on workwear, and view it as a huge area of stress.
My advice to candidates is to do your research. A firm’s dress code says a lot about its culture and it’s hugely important to find out if the firm is a ‘fit’ for you. Some people couldn’t care less about dress codes, others most certainly do. ‘Fit’ works both ways and it is not simply a question of learning to wear the right uniform.
For what it is worth, the view of the Telegraph’s Men’s Style Editor Stephen Doig is that “to assume that black shoes take priority over brown demonstrates a very stylistically uneducated viewpoint”. That lawyers have got it wrong when it comes to fashion comes as no surprise at all.