It was the summer of 1998. I was about to make my debut in “Big Law” as a summer associate at Hughes & Luce. That late, lamented firm—like every name brand law firm in Texas at that time—required its lawyers to come to the office in business attire.
For men that meant a full suit and tie, even if the only person the lawyer would be interacting with that day was their secretary. So I found my way over to Joseph A. Banks and purchased three suits, five shirts, and selection of ties so that I could attempt to “look like a lawyer.”
But then the actual summer of 1998 arrived. It was hot. Hotter than normal. Historically hot. And wearing a wool suit derived from the fashions of London in Texas in July is not fun even in a normal summer. And with 56 days over 100 degrees in a row in Big D, the summer of 1998 was not normal.
So Big Law reluctantly relented. And most firms, including deal old Hughes & Luce, adopted a sort of conditional heat-induced seasonal dress code; lawyers (and the summer associates who imitated them) did not have to wear full-scale business attire on days forecast to be over 100 degrees, provided they were not going to court or meeting with a client. The tyranny of the necktie was ended. “Business casual” had finally come to Big Law, and there would be no going back.
But two decades later, we’re still trying to meaningfully define what “business casual” means in a law firm environment. And I say that not as that summer associate from 1998, but as the managing partner of my firm’s 46-lawyer Dallas office who is tasked with refereeing dress code disputes and enforcing some minimum standards of professional disputes.
What American lawyers wear has long been controversial. According to historical legend, we only escaped wearing the gowns and horsehair wigs of our British cousins because Thomas Jefferson persuaded (or shamed) Chief Justice John Jay into discarding “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” And some lawyers resisted the move from traditional morning dress to modern “sack” suits, with the Solicitor General of the United States and his deputies continuing to appear before the Supreme Court in swallow-tail morning coats (although the only woman to serve as U.S. Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, did not follow this tradition).
But for most of the 20th century, the legal profession—male dominated for most of that period—achieved a sort of sartorial détente, with more or less every lawyer coming to work clad in a suit (generally wool), white or blue dress shirt, and tie. This uniform was required, regardless of what actual tasks or commitments awaited the lawyer on a given day.
But this long period of fashion harmony ended even before now-middle age lawyers like me had passed the bar exam. Locally in Texas, that infamous summer of ’98 certainly contributed, but there were larger and more powerful forces than mere Texas heat at play.
First, most of our clients abandon formal business attire long before their lawyers did. On my first day at Hughes & Luce, Vester T. Hughes told the assembled summer associates to “never forget that we lawyers are servants; high paid and proud servants, but servants nonetheless.” Of course, Vester was absolutely right about this. And it’s never wise for the hired help to out-dress the people they serve.
Second, the former “business attire only” dress codes of most law firms were designed for a time in which the percentage of female lawyers was dramatically lower. Male business attire is absurdly simple; just pick between navy, charcoal gray, light gray, and brown (with a black suit in the back of the closet for funerals) and remember not to wear the same tie two days in a row. Speaking as the husband of a corporate lawyer and father of four daughters, I am well aware that business attire for women is anything but simple, and does not lend itself to the sort of simplistic suit rotation that most men get away with.
Third, there’s been a general recognition that professionals who are comfortable will work more efficiently and longer than their counterparts who can’t wait to escape a constrictive necktie or unreasonably high pair of heels. Back in 2000, one of the most famous and successful litigators in America, David Boies, argued Bush v. Gore to the Supreme Court while wearing a pair of sneakers. It took the rest of us some time to catch up, but even the last fortress of business attire in the law—the feet of lawyers—is under siege as the trend towards emphasizing comfort over formality gains stream.
The decline of business attire has accelerated to the point that a suit may soon be our equivalent to the gowns and wigs used by our colleagues in Commonwealth nations. I recently wore a suit and tie to the office on a day that I did not a court appearance, prompting one of my partners to ask “do you have a job interview of some sort today?” I don’t view the end of the routine wearing of suits as a bad thing; formal business attire is expensive to acquire and maintain, it’s not built for comfort, and going directly from the office to evening activities (say, a Rangers game) in a suit is no fun.
So where does this all leave us? Well, I can only speak for the Dallas office of Dykema (and please no one send a copy of this article to my firm’s more formal mothership), but what are good lawyers ultimately hired for? Our judgment. Substantive legal knowledge and experience are helpful, but at bottom clients retain lawyers for their judgment.
As the leader of a large office at a large firm, I simply ask my colleagues to apply the same good judgment that they are being hired for to their own daily wardrobes. A lawyer’s schedule and obligations should dictate their attire on any given day. If you are going to court, wear a damn suit. If you are meeting with a client, think about what sort of client they are and wear something that fits that client’s culture; business attire when meeting with bankers, but ties forbidden when meeting with a tech client. If you are going to be alone in your office for a long day of legal research and briefing wear something casual comfortable.
And if you are the biggest economic producer in your firm keep doing what you are doing and don’t change a thing (our most economically successful lawyer favors jeans most days). We’re a profession rooted in the exercise of good judgment, and most of us are capable of applying that judgment to our everyday attire. Good riddance to rigid law firm dress codes.
Christopher D. Kratovil is the Dallas office managing member of Dykema and a member of the firm’s litigation department.