Fred gets up at eight o’clock in the morning and decides to skip breakfast because he feels energetic enough to focus on what he has to do at the law office without his usual eggs and bacon. In a rip-roaring mood, he pulls on his pants and stands before the full-length mirror and suddenly decides to wear that dressy business shirt his sister gave him—the white one with the wide pinstripes and the lavender collar and cuffs.
What Fred doesn’t know—he’s fifty-one and has been practicing law for most of his adult life and knows an awful lot about torts and depositions and civil trials, but he doesn’t know all that much about fashion—is going to hurt him in the long run, especially this morning. The fact is that his good mood has steered him down a road that most trial attorneys have been tempted to take now and then—the road of high fashion.
Instinctively he feels like something is wrong, but he doesn’t know what it is. Unfortunately, most lawyers are making significant wardrobe and image mistakes that are costing them time and money. It’s not that Fred can’t be successful in that shirt, it’s just that he’s making life more difficult for himself by wearing it.
The legal profession is constrained by one of the most conservative dress codes of any group of professionals. It’s not a dress code enforced by any authority. Instead, it’s a self-imposed code created by the collective expectations of generations of colleagues and clients. Some young attorneys chafe at the restrictions of this code, and feel a need to push the boundaries. Women will wear high heels, strange distracting hairstyles, and cherry red lipstick. Men will show up in court wearing loafers, huge polka dot ties, and . . . well, that shirt their sister gave them for their birthday.
The fact is that the only way to know if a style is effective is to test it. And for male attorneys the research indicates that there is a significant difference between a solid white shirt and the one Fred is wearing today. Incidentally, clients don’t always need to see you in a solid white shirt—it can be pale blue or beige or even pastel yellow—but they will not react favorably to the two-tone collar and cuffs that Fred is sporting. Even the wide pinstripes are a mistake.
Decades of testing reveal that there are definitely implications for the way that an attorney is perceived based on his wardrobe. While female attorneys generally have higher credibility than male attorneys (it’s a gender difference that works in women’s favor), all attorneys can improve their credibility—as well as their sense of trustworthiness and integrity—by adopting a conservative wardrobe.
WALLY WOULDN’T WEAR THAT!
When you’re getting dressed and find yourself tempted to experiment with something new and out of the ordinary, I recommend that you stop and ask yourself, “Would Wally wear this?”
Wally, of course, was Beaver’s older brother in the hit TV series Leave It to Beaver. He was more conservative and cautious than Beaver, and this is precisely the approach attorneys need to adopt if they are to be successful with their image.
When clients go home after meeting Fred for the first time today, they will be disturbed (even if only on an unconscious level) by the shirt he wore. This is why it pays to dress in a more conservative manner. Your clients infer things about your honesty and competence from the way you dress.
Your hairstyle is equally important in communicating trustworthiness and competence to clients. The operative word here is neatness. More important than color, cut, or style, neatness is the number one criteria for a successful look for your hair.
Footwear is also important, even if you don’t think people notice. Trust me, they notice. They’ll steal a glance at your shoes when you aren’t looking. Or they’ll absorb a favorable or unfavorable impression out of the corner of their eye.
DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
When you write a motion, does it matter that you have neat margins and spell things correctly? Of course it does. It’s part of the overall impression you’re conveying to the court. In the same way, your clothes, hair, and shoes—as well as your accessories—all convey things to your clients, and to decision-makers.
It may seem unimportant to you, but decades of research conclusively demonstrate that the little details do matter. By dressing conservatively and getting the hair and accessories right, you’ll put clients and colleagues at ease, you’ll convey core values of honesty and integrity, and you will pave the way for an ongoing relationship that is mutually beneficial.
Research demonstrates that salespeople who wear certain colors (blue, gray, and beige) earn more than those who stray from this standard middle-class look. In the same way, attorneys who dress in a conservative style experience less static from judges, find it easier to retain clients, and experience more harmonious relationships with colleagues.
Especially when meeting clients for the first time, it is essential to avoid the shirt your sister gave you. Fred has a lot of competition. And his competition is likely to be wearing a dull white or pastel blue shirt. In this case, dull is better by far than a newfangled fashionable shirt. Dull is likely to win you a new client and a long-term relationship that will make your life that much easier.
Then on weekends you can wear that experimental shirt . . . But we’ll have more—a lot more—to say about leisurewear in a future column.