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Do You "Look" the Brand?

Vivia Chen

March 20, 2011

Andrea_jung "Branding" is the new big buzz word among the legal set these days--it's up there with "teamwork" and "collaboration" and other concepts strange and exotic to most lawyers. Sure, we sort of know what "teamwork" entails (e.g., lawyers sharing Chinese takeout around a conference table), but does anyone really know what branding means for law firms and lawyers?

Your firm is probably paying consultants a bundle to figure out this brand thing. But I'd like to talk about an aspect that they probably wouldn't touch: your looks--and how they affect your personal brand.

Yes, it's a shallow topic, but looks always play a role in the game of success. But it's not just about looking "decent" or "good"--it's about looking the part. Do you have a "look" that says you are one-hell-of-a-litigator, or the go-to corporate strategist? Is your suit, tie, dress, shoes, briefcase--the whole package--delivering the message that you merit that $800-plus hourly rate? And is your look keeping up with the clients you serve?

The new look of power, according to a recent article in the business section of The New York Times, is to dress down--or, at least, unconventionally. Among those singled out by the NYT for their unique personal brands: Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne (sweaters and pressed shirts); Apple founder Steve Jobs (jeans and rumpled black cotton turtlenecks); Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (hoodies and sneakers); and Avon CEO Andrea Jung (fitted sleeveless dresses, sans jacket), who's also famous for her long hair with a sweep of side bangs.

All these execs can afford to wear anything they want, "yet the bare-bones personal uniform is being seen in some corner offices as the ultimate power suit," writes the NYT. The upshot is that the more powerful you are, the more license you have to be casual, even sloppy.

So are lawyers ready to follow their example? Not yet. For most lawyers, the uniform is still the conservative suit (though women can get away with a dress and jacket). Image consultant Diana Jennings says it's a uniform that conveys the "message of authority, precision, and stability that lawyers need to communicate."

But Jennings warns that dressing conservatively doesn't mean being outdated: "If you're not current in your presentation, the perception is that you are not current in thinking." She advises getting a stylish haircut and wearing current styles, "or you'll be seen as stodgy or staid."

Think of that uniform as a canvas for personal expression, says Susan Scafidi, the director of The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. "Everyone can pick out signature accessories," she says, but adds, "Figural jewelry should be tasteful. Unless you represent major gambling interests, skip the cuff links shaped like dice or dollar signs."

So let me see if I have all this straight: Dress conservatively, but make sure you're conservative in a trendy way. Also, wear distinctive accessories, but don't be gauche or Donald Trump-y about the jewelry.

Lawyers need a distinct look, a little wow factor--but they can't be obvious about it. It's all a delicate balancing act, isn't it? No wonder lawyers are still stuck in the 1980s. For men, it's the old starched white shirt (often with those pretentious monograms on the pocket or cuffs), an expensive but unmemorable tie, and cuff links. For women, the defaults remain clunky gold jewelry and St. John knit suits. A bit pathetic, no?

But its tough for lawyers to broadcast a "look." Even my stylish friend Jennifer, an entertainment lawyer in L.A., voices ambivalence about showing a bit of flash: "I think that we should look professional, but not draw attention to our appearance. Service providers need to focus on service and advancing their clients' objectives, not creating their own 'brand.' That's not our job!"

Readers, do you think a signature look will help a lawyer's career? Do you know lawyers whose looks helped develop their brand?

Related posts: Fashionistas on the Leash, The Power Look--White Males Only?, Pretty Enough for This Job Market?


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Depending on the industry, branded products are nothing more than overhyped versions of the products they ultimately are.

A Tiffany's diamond, for example is touted to be the finest in the world. Yet if you ask a gemologist what is the difference between the Tiffany diamond and an unbranded one of equal cut, color, clarity and carat the answer is:'None'

So we have to be careful in the branded products we choose to pay a premium for. Some are worth it, but some are quite simply not.

I had perfected my branded look. Then at 34, I got cancer this year and lost all my hair, eyebrows, etc. I realized I had to develop a new look to my brand, and wow, was it a rough road. This was a very interesting transformation. I completely agree that we need to brand ourselves.

"Branding" comes to the legal world!

...and once again, the legal world lags about 10-20 years behind the rest of the business world lawyers purport to serve.


I don't believe in "branding". I'm an attorney for my mind, not my looks. If you believe that the look makes the attorney, you're discriminating and you're shorting yourself and your clients.

When I started in practice (qualified 1999) I used to do a lot of business development in the technology sector. The fact I had a shaved head, and looked young definitely helped my positioning with tech companies. However, when it came to the firm's partnership assessment centre, the one piece of 360 feedback I really took to heart, was that a smart but informal approach to dress (often chinos and shirts in the office) didn't always score points with my peers and seniors in other parts of the firm.

Since then, I always wore a suit (although I draw the line at a tie in anything other than exceptional circumstances!) and when I moved in-house, my boss endorsed this, explaining that while many of our internal clients didn't dress up, "it's important for a doctor to carry a stethoscope"!


Worn a suit since I was a 1L. But, then again, I worked my way through school, attending classes at night.

For me, the "uniform" the suit-pants, and coat. As for the shirt, sold with a patterned suit, and a design with a solid suit.

And, though I know they aren't expensive (relatively speaking) all the suits are from Structure (now merged into Express).

For me, in the wonderful subset of personal injury called medical malpractice, those you serve are (at least on my end) grievously injured plaintiffs. They don't warm-up too well to those who look like bankers.

So, ultra-conservative doesn't work with them... unless they are seeing you in court! Usually, I refrain from wearing a tie when meeting with them beyond the first introduction.

Other than that (outside the office), I own a pair of cargo pants, and a pair of jeans... with Timberlands to go with them.

Basically, for me, if I am working, I am in a suit... other than that, this lawyer reverts to his attire from my former life (before I was a lawyer), when I spent most of my time on the, say it with me... "streets of Philadelphia." Oh, can't forget the "nana na nana na."

I will never go with the brands....This is because the things that are shown with great exposure sometimes are not so good,as they are present in front of us....

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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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