A Chicago Litigator Considers Whether to Require Formal Suiting for New Associates
Posted Aug 12, 2006 12:21 PM CST
By Jill Schachner Chanen
Gene Murphy prides himself on being a different kind of lawyer.
For example, he has vowed to always be ready for trial and never ask for a continuance or delay. And in a day and age when most men go to work in khaki pants and golf shirts and keep a suit in their office, Murphy wears a suit and tie every day. No exceptions.
“You can’t be running around your office in your underwear trying to change into a suit to make the 9:30 a.m. court call,” says the Chicago litigator. Plus, he feels that looking the part of a serious lawyer is all part of the package he is selling. “Clients have expectations of what their lawyer should look like,” he says. “Having middle-aged people running around in Gap khakis and polo shirts does not exude confidence.”
Besides, he asks, how can you distinguish yourself if you are all dressing alike? “Why pick me if I look like the thousand other litigators in this city?”
But Murphy knows he is in the minority in the great business-casual debate. And he has to laugh when he sees law firms touting business-casual dress codes as a perk. “Everyone thinks they are getting something by dressing casually, but what are you getting? It’s a perk that doesn’t cost the firms a thing,” he says.
Now Murphy finds himself confronting different attitudes about what to wear to work as he contemplates expanding the size of his firm. He is committed to a formal dress code at his firm, but also knows it will be a tough sell, especially to young lawyers who could be working in more casual clothes while taking breaks in employee lounges that offer flat-screen television sets and on-site espresso bars. “I view looking presentable as part of my responsibility as managing partner,” Murphy says.
So far, Murphy’s firm is all-male. And while he is open to hiring men or women in the future, he can see the value of creating a dress code largely tailored to men because they tend to have more difficulty navigating the fashion spectrum between business suits on one end and polo shirts and khakis on the other.
He’s toyed with the idea of creating a written dress code for his firm and backing it up with a clothing allowance, but he wonders where to draw the line. He does not want to resurrect an IBM-style dress code of long ago when all men were required to wear blue suits, white shirts and red ties every day, but he wants the lawyers at his firm to understand that projecting a certain image is part of being a successful trial lawyer.
Life Audit professional attire expert Clinton Kelly understands Murphy’s perspective, but he says most businesses—law firms included—have yet to fully embrace a return to formal attire. “In general, when the economy seems to be experiencing unstoppable growth, bosses become very lenient with dress codes,” Kelly notes.
The problem, Kelly says, is this: “Why would a 25-year-old who’s fresh out of law school want to spend a fortune on a wardrobe full of new suits when he’s got six figures in student loan debt?” Furthermore, he says, the younger generation of males is “devoid of sophisticated role models—most don’t know how important a role appearance plays in the work force because they’ve never experienced the effects of it.”
Selling a daily dose of suits, which includes ties for the guys, might be tough, but it’s not impossible, Kelly says.
The key is for Murphy to offer something in return. “Maybe that’s a wardrobe stipend, maybe it’s the opportunity to interact with clients they wouldn’t even be introduced to at another firm,” he suggests. “I think it would be a hard sell just to say, ‘Come work here because we dress better than everyone else.’ ”
If Murphy thinks a clothing allowance is a selling point, he needs to be aware of the substantial cost he could be footing. According to Kelly, men should expect to shell out around $8,000 to outfit their closets with a new, high-quality wardrobe of at least four suits, 10 shirts, eight to 10 ties and two belts. And that price tag could escalate if the lawyer wants designer duds.
But simply having a closet full of clothing does not make a dress code work, Kelly says. Murphy needs to spell out the rules with great specificity and leave little room for individual interpretation. Labeling the office dress code as “corporate casual” or “business professional” won’t work because no one knows what that means. “I don’t know—and I do this for a living,” Kelly says. “It’s like receiving a wedding invitation that says ‘black-tie optional.’ Do you want me to wear a tux or not?”
Kelly believes that Murphy should label the style of dress he wants the lawyers to adhere to as classic and not conservative because it allows young lawyers to be appropriately stylish and youthful. “Conservative, for many 20- or 30-somethings is synonymous with stodgy, cigar-chomping bankers, whereas classic can have a young, modern interpretation. For example, Armani suits are classic and not necessarily conservative,” he says.
The dress code also should offer specific guidelines on as many sartorial fronts as possible, including the acceptable number of buttons on a suit coat, fabric types and shoe styles, Kelly says. For example, Murphy should specify if patterns like plaids, pinstripes, chalk stripes and herringbones are acceptable, and whether lighter-weight suits like seersucker and colors like khaki are acceptable to wear in warmer weather.
But Murphy also has to recognize that a dress code isn’t a panacea. “The problem with all of this is that you can follow all the rules and still look like an absolute mess,” Kelly says.
Kelly suggests that Murphy enlist the help of a respected local menswear shop and hold periodic seminars on professional attire. “How great would it be,” he says, “to go to an upscale men’s store with your colleagues for a night of martinis and cigars and suit-shopping with the help of a master tailor?”
In his experience, Kelly has found that once men receive instruction on how to put together looks and learn the basic rules of fit, they take more pride in their appearance. And that is something no rule book can enforce.
Eugene E. Murphy Jr.
Position Partner, Murphy & Hourihane, Chicago
Goal To maintain a professional look among the lawyers at his firm, possibly by adopting a dress code
Clinton Kelly is co-host of TLC’s What Not to Wear. He also is the co-author of Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body.
What’s in Your Closet?
Here is Clinton Kelly’s checklist of wardrobe essentials for the well-dressed man.
Gray suit in a solid or slight pattern
Navy suit in a solid or slight pattern
Khaki suit in a solid
Patterned suit in something bold, like a glen plaid
Sport coats, two of them
Black lace-up shoes and brown loafers
Belts—one brown, one black
Assorted shirts, ties and a pocket square or two
Life Audit HOT TIP: ARE YOU STYLING?
Think style is all about buying the latest Prada suit? Think again, says Life Audit professional attire expert Clinton Kelly. “Style is more about fit than trends.” If you really want to look stylish, learn where a sleeve should hit the wrist, have sleeves narrowed to fit your arms, get your jackets tailored comfortably close to the torso, and get pants hemmed to the right length. And don’t forget to look down: Those shoes may need to be polished.
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