"She looks so dumpy. Really, doesn't she know there are other stores besides Talbots?"
Maybe it's the heat. Or the sticky air. But for whatever reason, lawyers (can we be honest and say women lawyers?) are getting steamed up about summer clothes in the workplace. Mainly, they are commenting about what other women are wearing, and it's usually about how inappropriate or dated the clothes are.
Here's the battle line: Senior women are shaking their heads at how casual or tawdry junior associates look, while the juniors are thinking that the "old" ladies (that now means Baby Boomers) are way too formal and uptight. "Oh my God," says a first-year associate at a big New York law firm, "they even wear support hose on a 95-degree day!"
Well, girls, law is kind of an uptight profession. So the old ladies win the style war here.
Corporette, the fashion site for corporate women, asks a timely question: "How do you tell someone that outfit isn't working--or, worse, that their entire style needs to be rethought?"
Despite the aspiring Lady Gagas running around firms, many young women actually want to be told if their clothes are out of line. Typical of the reader comments in Corporette: "If I made a big fashion mistake--whether something just looked terrible on me, or was completely inappropriate for the work dress code--I would want someone to let me know."
But ask senior women lawyers how they handle this issue, and most will say they are reluctant about saying anything at all. A New York-based partner tells me it's "unlikely" that she would make a direct comment, though she adds, "I might say, 'Wow, that's quite something,' and then let her figure it out herself."
Another senior lawyer at a media company in California says, "I have held my tongue on many occasions." She adds that she once supervised a "pudgy female lawyer who wore clothing at least two sizes too small--she was literally busting out all over the place." And at another time, the style offender was a young male lawyer who wore flip-flops. So was he just L.A.-cool? No, she snaps: "He wasn't fashionable, just schlumpy."
Why aren't these senior lawyers telling the offenders that they look offensive? Mostly it's because it's very hard to make a comment about someone's appearance. No matter how hard you try, the comment is bound to sound personal and critical. That's especially true if you're criticizing a woman.
Interestingly, the one lawyer I spoke with who had no qualms about laying the issue on the line is a man: Michael Maslanka, an employment partner at Ford & Harrison's Dallas office. He says he once worked on a case with a female associate who wore "very high heels--nightclub high." So he requested that the woman "get more modest shoes."
Too often, senior lawyers forget that young lawyers don't realize how they are being perceived or that the rules are different in a professional setting. Says Maslanka: "When you've never been to a trial, you often don't realize these things. How you look is often as important as what you say. A jury, witness or prospective client should focus on what you say and not what you wear."
So, girlfriends, maybe it's just time we tell it like it is (assuming you are confident what looks right). Yes, I know, it's a lot easier said than done. I'd have a hard time telling even a close friend that her orange dress makes her look like a giant fruit salad. But, I'd appreciate it if someone clued me in on my own wardrobe foibles. How would I take it? Well, I might feel a bit hurt and certainly embarrassed. It's complicated, isn't it?
What's your experience? Have you ever been told that you don't look the part of a lawyer? What was your reaction? And would you tell someone that she really needs an overhaul?
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.
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