Thursday, January 31, 2008

WSJ: On Style: Law Without Suits: New Hires Flout Tradition

Basically, get with the program youngsters. You aren't as inexpendable as you think. And if you don't believe me, just wait for the economy to continue crashing...

Style -- On Style: Law Without Suits: New Hires Flout Tradition --- Young Attorneys' Casual Attire Draws Criticism at Big Firms; A Crackdown on Ugg Boots
By Christina Binkley
31 January 2008

The Wall Street Journal

One of the lifestyle perks law firms increasingly offer young lawyers is the chance to dress comfortably at the office. With "business casual" as the new dress code of record, ties hang in closets and jackets await their day in court at home.
There's just one problem: It can be difficult to get young associates to shift gears and don traditional dress when the need arises. A decade after the dot-com boom made casual Friday a weeklong event, many people under 30 have never witnessed a suits-only office.
Older people have long complained about the sartorial sloppiness of the younger generation. But the divide is stark in the legal profession.
"I share the lament and disgust about the general level of associates' attire," says Tom Mills, the 60-year-old managing partner of the Washington office of Winston & Strawn LLP. "I think it's abysmal."
For young men and women, a business suit is an uncomfortable yoke to be dusted off for special occasions. "Getting up in the morning and putting on a suit is hard," says Sara Shikhman, a 26-year-old legal associate at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in New York. She says she hasn't worn one in six months.
When associates show up at work in suits, their peers think they have a job interview, Ms. Shikhman says. "Guys don't really polish their shoes," she adds. They go for cool, rather than traditional. "They wear shoes like you might see Johnny Depp wearing to the Oscars." She recognizes that her firm's partners "definitely look more put together than associates, but they also get more sleep than the associates."
Yet in lawyering, half the battle is the posturing. Many experienced lawyers see their wardrobe as a tool to win the trust of clients, juries and judges. Legal associates who aren't sartorially prepared may not be invited along to a new-client pitch or to take a leading role in court, regardless of the office's stated "business casual" dress code.
Mr. Mills says he is partial to well-fitted Brioni suits for himself. He notes that the going rate for new associates in New York, Los Angeles and Washington is $160,000 a year -- enough to buy suits while paying down school loans. Yet all too often, associates show up at work in jeans -- attire that he doesn't condone "unless it's moving day."
When it came time to pick a point person for a plum assignment at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips recently, the New York law firm chose "a polished, professional-looking associate" over a "brilliant" and experienced associate who had been counseled, to no avail, to improve his grooming and attire, says Renee Brissette, a partner at the firm.
The firm opted for someone more presentable to the client, says Ms. Brissette. She notes that associates are often loath to believe their attire could affect assignments or promotions. "Young lawyers don't like to hear that it's anything but their intellect," says Ms. Brissette. She notes that for women, being professionally attired doesn't require a man-suited look: She has a wardrobe of Nanette Lepore suits that are unmistakably feminine without being inappropriately flirty.
Brad Tobin, 25, who is working at a midtown Manhattan law firm, says he is certain that clothes don't affect job assignments at his firm. "Not at all -- it's really based on work product," says Mr. Tobin, who is working part-time while he completes law school. He says he owns suits but doesn't bother to wear them at work.
Law firms are attempting to raise the bar. Some associates at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft this winter received a note asking employees to change out of their snow boots after young associates began wearing their Ugg boots all day at work, says Ms. Shikhman. A Cadwalader spokeswoman says she wasn't aware that such a note had circulated.
Winston & Strawn brought in a personal shopper from a local department store last year to address associates on how to shop and dress for work. Mr. Mills says that when some associates do make an effort to dress up, they seem to base their look on Hollywood. "You get the TV-woman lawyer look with skirts 12 inches above the knee and very tight blouses," he says. "They have trouble sitting and getting into taxis."
The firm also hired etiquette consultant Gretchen Neels, a former executive recruiter, to give lectures on grooming, dress, and etiquette standards such as where to place one's napkin at dinner.
She says many members of the so-called millennial generation have never been schooled in the traditions that previous generations learned at their parents' knees. Yet these 20-somethings are still being evaluated by old-school bosses and clients. Many members of this generation not only "don't own a watch -- they've never owned a watch," says Ms. Neels. In many white-collar professions, an expensive watch signals success, while a cool cellphone or iPod, though it tells time, signals hipness.
Ms. Neels, founder of Neels & Co. in Boston, has been making the rounds at law firms, as well as law and business schools at Duke, Harvard and other universities. She hears all sorts of complaints from scandalized partners: One young attorney wears yoga pants to work. Another associate blasted out a firmwide email searching for a size-32 belt when an unanticipated court appearance required him to dress up midday.
Ms. Neels notes that business-school grads share law associates' casual sartorial attitude, and she tries to connect the dots between what they wear and how they come across. When she was coaching M.B.A. graduates at Harvard last weekend, she says only about half came in a suit. One young man showed up in cargo pants, and his cellphone rang during the interview.
"What I'm getting from you is that you're a jerk," Ms. Neels told the student as part of her feedback. "Can you see how I'd get that?"
"Yeah, I guess," he responded, she says.
Trial attorney Rosemarie Arnold says young lawyers need to learn that "courtroom drama is all about control." Ms. Arnold represented Joran van der Sloot, one of three men who were with student Natalee Holloway before she disappeared in Aruba. With courtroom appearances in mind, Ms. Arnold spends $150,000 a year on clothes, she estimates. She is partial to Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana in particular and black suits in general.
"Trying a case is like a movie," Ms. Arnold says. "Wardrobe is everything."

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