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Dressing for Success – Tips on Proper Attire for the Office, Courtroom and Events

By Patrick J. Austin


Dressing appropriately for specific work settings can be difficult for newly licensed attorneys. Gone are the law-school days where you can waltz in wearing board shorts and flip-flops to a final exam or journal meeting. Whether you work in the private sector or public sector, there is likely a dress codes in your office. There’s also a dress code when appearing in court, at a deposition, and at events. Below are tips to help you dress for success no matter where you find your find yourself in the legal world.


Tip No.1 – Dress for the Job Appropriately, Whether You Want It or Not


You’ve probably heard the old adage, “dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” This vague platitude oversimplifies proper work attire and may lead you to violate office etiquette with your colleagues and supervisor(s). Wearing a suit and tie while literally everyone else in your office wears khakis and polo shirts does not give you an edge in your pursuit to climb the corporate ladder. Instead, dressing appropriately for the work setting should be the objective.


Tip No. 2 – Ask Your Supervisor to Clarify “Business Casual”


In many offices, both in the private and public sectors, there is an adherence to a “business casual” dress policy. The Oxford Dictionary defines business casual as “relating to or denoting a style of clothing that is less formal than traditional business wear, but is still intended to give a professional and businesslike impression.” Gee, that isn’t vague and unhelpful (insert sarcasm emoji). This is why you should ask your supervisor to elaborate on how the office specifically defines business casual attire. Does it mean khakis and a button shirt? Does it mean blue jeans and a blazer? Are Crocs ever allowed? (You already know the answer.)


Tip No. 3 – Professional Attire Always Required When in Court


It does not matter if you are visiting the court to attend an informal hearing or even to simply file a pleading. Wear professional attire. I remember quite clearly a fellow attorney getting excoriated by a judge for showing up to a hearing without wearing a tie. The lawyer had on a very nice suit and dress shoes, but he rolled the dice and opted not to wear a tie. The judge asked, “Lawyer X, are you headed to a BBQ? Or perhaps a night club?” The lawyer sheepishly responded in the negative. The judge then declared that when officers of the court walk into his court room, he expects a tie to be worn by counsel for both parties.


Tip No. 4 – Events Outside the Office


Events that take place outside your office present a unique challenge. You need to do some research on the location of the event. For example, if you’re attending a Bar event that will be held outside during the spring or summer, consider wearing a light, linen-based suit. For women, a sun dress would likely be appropriate. If it’s a cocktail party at a five-star restaurant, you should consider wearing professional attire.


Tip No. 5 – Avoid Showing Skin


According to Epstein Schwartz, a professional placement company, this is a “no-no for both men and women in the office environment.” For men, appropriate button up your shirts and do not provide your colleagues with two tickets to the gun show. For women, blouses should also be buttoned up appropriately.

Tip No. 6 – Wear a Watch


Most lawyers today have at least one smart phone in their pocket and they often use this device to check the time. Nevertheless, you should wear a watch. Having a quality wrist watch will come in handy when you are in court arguing a hearing or presenting your case during a trial. Many courts prohibit cell phones from entering the court room or require that you turn the phone off while court is in session. This means a quick glance of your phone to check the time is not possible and a wrist watch can prove to be invaluable.


Hopefully these tips will help you avoid a fashion faux pas and allow you to be dressed in a manner that is optimized for success.


Patrick Austin is a 2013 graduate of the George Mason University School of Law and currently works as an Attorney-Advisor for the United States Department of Justice in the Office of Information Policy. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Docket Call.