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Tell Her She Looks Ridiculous

Vivia Chen

July 16, 2010

Forever-21-twist-08 "What's with the three layers of tank tops and the frilly skirt? Somebody, cut up her Forever 21 credit card!"

"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 [email protected].

Photo: Forever 21 Twist ad campaign


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I think all companies should have dress codes. I think people, especially younger people, really do want and need some guidance on how to dress in the workplace. I once worked in-house for a company that had a general counsel who required that his attorneys wear suits every day (the theory being that you may have to go to court on a moment's notice) and he simply did not like women in pantsuits. I was the only female lawyer but I wasn't going to make an issue over something that didn't matter to me. I like the way I look in skirts. By the way, while I worked for that company, we had an employee manual that addressed proper office attire and we actually fired a female employee who, after two warnings and being shown precisely where in the manual the dress code appeared) continued to show up to work "leaving nothing to anyone's imagination" as her manager put it. There was another polidy she refused to comply with as well, but I don't remember what it was. And, yes, I totally agree with the man who requested that the young lady wear "more modest shoes"--I think he put it very diplomatically and what did she want to look like, anyway--a stripper? And, yes, panyhose in 95-degree weather suck big time. But I don't think you have to stick with blue or gray--I like maroon for suits, for example, but unlike in some professions, like advertising or marketing, I would be afraid to go to red or pink for a suit. However, I once met with a female FBI agent who was wearing a pink suit, so maybe it's me. I am a baby boomer, by the way. My issue is hair--it's long and curly and I do pull it away from my face and discipline it a bit but I refuse to cut it. Do I have to get a Hillary Clinton bob? I don't want to. My husband likes my hair too.

My employer just implemented a dress code. While i am less then thrilled- we never see the public. I have some complaints that should have been addressed instead of shoes! Pierced faces, visible tatoos all over the arms not appropriate for the work place!!! (That's the female receptionist by the way- the only one who might see the public!) Also- wear a bra! and shirts no shorter then 2 inches above your knee- I do not want to see your rear. Interestingly enough the dress code fails to address these issues.

As a baby boomer coming into the practice of law with women's liberation issues and mini skirts, I have some sympathy for young women who have chosen the practice of law but want to continue to dress fashionably - the disconnect arises from the failure to recognize that the choice of a stoggy old profession like the legal profession places a limit on what one can wear and still hope to be taken seriously. A young lawyer, whethr male or female, needs to appear professional, to speak as a professional, in addition to knowing what he/she is talking about, i.e., what's your authority. Once a young woman or man recognizes that what is worn telegraphs judgment, it's a lot easier to look for well cut suits and dresses with appropriate accessorites for the office, court or meeting with a client. In those quarters, its how smart you are rather than how current you look.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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