As law firm summer associates return to office, the Great Wardrobe Debate rages

(Reuters) – With law firms welcoming summer associates back in person this month after a two-year hiatus, the eager-to-impress newcomers have one big question: What to wear?

A suit and tie? Sheath dress and blazer? Jeans and a polo shirt? Stretchy soft pants and a sweater? And what the heck do wardrobe descriptors like “business comfort” or “smart casual” mean anyway?

For aspiring lawyers, choosing the right clothing isn’t just about vanity or self-expression. It’s also a way to telegraph a message: I belong here.

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Making the transition from student schlumpy to lawyer-like has always been a challenge for summer associates, but two years in sweats and Uggs is making it even harder.

Hogan Lovells U.S. hiring partner Carin Carithers said the firm, which is hosting 84 summer associates this year, does not have a dress code, and that “suggested attire is largely determined by each office.”

“Since our transition to hybrid working, many of our people have been wearing attire that falls into the category of business casual, though we do have some offices where jeans are commonplace,” she said. “Of course, when our lawyers are headed to court or other client facing functions, we continue to dress in business-appropriate attire.”

As for advice to incoming summers, she said they should “feel free to dress for comfort, while presenting a professional demeanor. Rather than providing a list of ‘what not to wear,’ we anticipate they will dress for the activities planned.”

Sidley Austin global finance partner Kelly Dybala, who co-chairs the firm’s associate recruiting committee as well as its summer associate program, said law students should take their cue from what other lawyers in the office are wearing. (Sidley is hosting 268 summer associates from 38 law schools this year.)

“If you see partners and associates wearing suits, then you might want to wear a suit. The same is true for business casual clothes,” Dybala said. “Our clients look to us for advice, and when they see us, they expect us to look the top-tier lawyer part.”

But for a typical twenty-something law student on a limited budget, pulling off the “top-tier lawyer” look can be tricky.

Granted, the pandemic has loosened standards a bit.(Literally – according to a survey by online personal shopping and styling service Stitch Fix, 47% of women heading back to the office plan to wear elastic-waist pants.)

The “Big Law” thread on the online discussion site Reddit has been filled of late with questions from incoming summers trying to figure out wardrobe strategies – starting with what to wear on the first day of work.

If a firm says its dress code is business casual, should you wear a suit anyway?

“Dress up the first day. Dress down day 2, after you get obligatorily teased for it by the lawyers there,” one commenter advised.

Another agreed, writing that he’d think badly of a summer associate for not wearing a suit on the first day: “Lots of older partners are particular about this and I’d hate to run into one of them on Day 1 and be the only one perceived as a slob (because) I wasn’t in a suit while others were.”

But what if the tables are turned and you find yourself awkwardly overdressed and out of place?

“If everyone else is (business casual) and you’re wearing a tie, you’re going to stand out in a negative way,” a commenter pointed out.

It’s an ethos that reminds me of middle school: Avoid clothes that make you conspicuous. The goal instead is to fit in.

As for women, one Reddit commentator recommended eschewing a skirt suit in favor of “a plain black dress with a blazer over it, that way you can take the blazer off to be more casual and it’s still a complete looking outfit.” (But before shedding the jacket, also be sure the firm allows sleeveless dresses, lest your bared biceps cause scandal.)

Perhaps recognizing the potential for angst, some firms offer more explicit guidance on Day One attire.

At Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which is set to welcome 104 summer associates on May 23, the firm specifically instructs the law students to dress business casual – not in a suit – on the first day of work.

The firm-wide dress code is “jeans” through Labor Day, a Wilmer spokesman told me, adding that the firm will “provide guidance to them that while we will continue to have a more casual dress code through the summer, they should not be too ‘weekend casual’ and mindful of times they may need to dress more formally for certain client meetings, if they are going to observe in court, et cetera.”

At Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which is set to welcome 213 associates, the summer dress code is the same as the firmwide dress code, a spokeswoman told me – work-appropriate casual (jeans are OK), but also occasion-specific.

O’Melveny & Myers has 92 incoming summers and said simply that “our offices provide general guidance around suitable and professional attire that allows our people to be comfortable while they work.”

Or ultra-ambitious summer associates could take the advice of one Reddit commenter to prove their commitment: “Tuxedo or wedding dress so you can show you will be married to the job. Immediate offer,” the lawyer wrote, adding “Just kidding.”

(NOTE: A previous version of this column identified Stitch Fix as a fashion blog, which is part of the company’s operations.)

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