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High-Powered Lawyers Wear Flip Flops

Vivia Chen

June 22, 2011

Shirt:shortI rather dread this time of year, because this is when the big law firms in the land start looking like golfing camps. It's business casual season, which means that legions of lawyers--young and old, male and female--are donning pressed khakis and polo shirts.

From a style point of view, it is utterly stultifying.

Maybe that's why I got excited when I met a Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan associate at a party who defied that mode. Instead of wearing that "neat and spiffy" casual uniform, he arrived--straight from the office--decked in shorts and flip flops. He was jaw-droppingly sloppy.

What's fascinating is that the firm not only tolerates such extreme dress-down, it encourages it.

"We take casual dress to a whole new level," says founding partner William Urquhart. "The only dress code we have is that you to have something between your feet and the carpet--and that's because our insurance company requires it!"

At all times of the year, Urquhart tells me, dress-down is the dominant style at the firm for partners and associates and men and women. T-shirts and jeans are popular with everyone, he says, but the difference is that "men are more likely to wear ones that their wives told them to throw out--those with raggedy edges."

But why would any firm encourage such sloppiness? Doesn't it undercut professionalism? Ah, well, there's a business reason.

Urquhart says he's convinced that sartorial freedom helps nurture legal genius: "What we [litigators] do is an exercise in creativity. You have a set of facts and the law--and you have to be creative with the two. Dressing casually improves our creativity." What's more, he says, it helps break down barriers, so that young associates are "more likely to speak up" and "not be so intimidated by the trappings of power."

 But not all associates like the idea of über-casualness at the office. One associate at the New York office of a big California firm is appalled that lawyers--especially older ones--would even think of wearing jeans. "Generally, if it's a man [wearing jeans]--especially a partner--it's a disaster, and involves some sort of oversized polo shirt," she says. "They have no style." As for shorts, she says she'd rather not think about it.

Urquhart, however, says he thinks the casual dress policy at his firm is popular: "I haven't heard from any associates about not liking our policy." He adds: "Besides, I don't think my legs are that bad."

Below: Scenes from Quinn's New York office:




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I think a good rule of thumb is, if you could not get into a decent fraternity wearing it, dont wear it to the office.

Cargo shorts? Are you freakin kidding me? I have seen people who wear cargo shorts before, you know what we call them? ∆.

Seriously, they are always a ∆ and even though they have exhibited extreme care in their duty to their cargo shorts, they have always breached their duty to just about anything else in life.

Seriously do not wear cargo shorts, flip flops, Afliction shirts, white t's, tanks, or anything else douchey.

If you must wear shorts, wear some chubbies or something that stops at least 6 inches above your knee and does not make you look like an extra in a rap video.

Leadership is alive and creative at this firm.

I'm sorry but there's nothing cute about flip flop, and it sure doesn't scream professional. I don't think I would have hire a lawyer who walks around in flip flops all the time.

I was also going to say Google encourages this for their employees, and it seems to working out for them. I think the mind works best when free and comfortable.

flip flops are not shoes. Period.

Quinn Emanuel was the most profitable law firm in LA last year...causation or correlation?

What fashion sense has to do with legal ability (except in some folks' perception) mystifies me! Having (in my past) done litigation, it is--or should be--creative, and members of teams should be encouraged to participate. I have always felt I thought better, faster and more creatively in jeans and tennis shoes than hose and a skirt any day. Of course, court appearances were different--and since one could happen at any time, there was always a suit and blouse hanging on the back of my door, with hose and flats in a desk drawer (also handy for those inconvenient and embarrasing spills, ink spots, etc :) I really appreciated the opportunity to dress down, even if it was not a daily occurence.

Having been in-house for many years now, my standard dress has mutated from "courtroom" [a variety of suit] down to "professional" [slacks, blouses, stylish sweaters, etc.] Oddly enough, although physicians are often unstylish dressers, they expect professionals who work for them to dress the part . . .

Susan (not a fashion snob)

It's fun to dress up, and it makes me feel more professional. Skirts are more comfortable for sitting at a desk than pants. Support stockings and jackets are required for warmth in air-conditioned skyscraper offices. Flip-flops are not supportive and are bad for the feet and back.
I would hesitate to do business with someone who is wearing ragged clothes for any reason. It sends a message that they have no self-respect. If it's casual it should also be neat, clean, well-fitting and accessorized for me to feel comfortable with them.

I'm glad that professionalism is becoming less and less about appearance and more and more about ability and substance.

Genius, my tushy! I worked for a high profile SoCal plaintiffs' firm in the late 80's that pioneered the look. We were "allowed" to dress that way so nobody would complain when we worked 18 hour days.

Can they open an office in Tampa Bay Please!!!

Props Vivia... not sure on the total number of scrabble points for that word; but, it truly fits!

Only one question here: same dress-code when clients are in the house? That, in my opinion, would indeed be "stultifying."

Tech companies do this - why not law firms? No one would think for a moment that casual dress makes Google less professional (or profitable).

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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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