Should Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Dress in Uniform? (Part I)

Even before the pandemic, the dress code for law firms was trending casual, with a focus on comfort, ease and convenience as described in this post.  Now, with a return to the office after two years working from home in pajamas or sweats, what will wardrobe look like?  We’ll address that in Part II of this post.

Back when I graduated law school in 1988 (gasp!), suit-and-tie for men and skirt-suits and dress-and-blazer for women were de rigueur dress – not just for court, but simply for every day at the office.  Who knows why we ever thought it made sense to work that way except for the fact that it was how it had always been done.  Over time and as with everything else, technology disrupted dress codes for lawyers at both large and small firms.  For starters, technology enabled face-time and document sharing over the cloud, thus obviating the need for face-to-face sit downs and client visits. Second, as tech startups grew successful, many law firms began to adopt the same casual dress code in hopes of showing tech companies a more relaxed atmosphere that might lure them as clients. 

In some ways, however, the demise of formal business attire has complicated the question of what to wear for law firms and staff with too many choices and questions about appropriate attire. Though court-dress has remained largely the same (with skirt suits now replaced by pantsuits), solo and small law firm dress codes vary widely with little agreement on anything. Do clients expect male attorneys to wear suits and tie? What about sleeveless shirts or slacks for women? Are jeans and flip flops ever acceptable? The questions are as much of a challenge for staff – particularly newer graduates coming from an environment where professors often show up in jeans and tee shirts and students with an early morning class might be wearing their pajamas.

So I was intrigued by this recent article from Fast Company that described an experiment involving two of its editors who were asked to create a work-dress uniform that they would wear to the office every day for a month.  One editor wore a black tee-shirt with dark gray jeans while the other paired a black turtleneck with a long black skirt.  The editors discovered that their co-workers didn’t notice that they wore the same thing every day.  

Although the Fast Company article is recent, for law firm owner Nina Ries, a work uniform is nothing new. As Nina writes in this  article, her uniform for more than seven years has been a black dress and pearls:

It all started when I needed to find a solution that could easily go from one obligation to the next. I am a business and real estate attorney, so in a single day, I could feasibly need to appear in court before heading to meetings at my daughter’s school or to my office. From there, I may need to attend client meetings or networking lunches before stopping by a job site, heading to city hall to meet with a variety of commissioners, or attending planning commission meetings. I might also volunteer in my daughter’s classroom in the afternoon. In the evening, it’s not uncommon for me to stop by an after-work mixer for a professional group, a fundraiser, or alumni events for my undergraduate institution or law school. And occasionally, we also have theater tickets. The only outfit that lets me travel seamlessly from one of these obligations to the next without having to change is my uniform. It doesn’t require any thought, I always match, and I’m always appropriately dressed for the occasion.

Best of all, it’s easy. I don’t have to think about it. I was just starting my own law firm after working at firms for 9 years. I was making a myriad of decisions every day, many of which would have significant impacts on my clients’ businesses, on our legal strategy, on negotiations, on our success at trial, on my daughter’s upbringing, on our personal finances, and more. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, for the sake of my sanity, I needed to simplify and to relieve myself of some of those decisions. Relief was in a black dress and pearls.

While the uniform approach can work well for attorneys, what about staff? Some firms provide staff with branded polo shirts to wear at the office, while others offer a clothing allowance so that staff can purchase clothing for work that they might not otherwise own.  Many firms – my own included – adopt some kind of dress code (for my firm, no shorts, flip flops or t-shirts and jeans on Fridays only). 

Do you have a favorite uniform that you wear to your office? What about requirements for staff? Share your thoughts in the comment section below – or click over to our Facebook page here to discuss. You can also find links to MyShingle’s fashion posts from 2011-2012 here .

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

This post was originally published on June 13, 2019 and updated on March 15, 2022

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