My pal, Leo Mulvihill of the Fishtown Lawyers, writes an occasional post at the Puddle about male attire. I enjoy his posts, largely because I like Leo and he’s got a bit of a throwback sensibility about clothing. He gets it, though most new lawyers don’t.
I can’t blame new lawyers for lacking much sensitivity to sartorial splendor, as it came on me via the back door as well. Back in 1981, the time rolled around to put on one’s interview suit and smile for the lawyers so they would think well of you. I signed up for a few interviews, and they went fine in a neutral sort of way, but I failed to get a second interview. Eventually, a nice fellow from a Big Law firm explained a detail to me that I had completely overlooked.
“Your suit is, well, horrible. It tells me that you aren’t going to fit in with our firm’s culture.” Being clueless, I asked him why my suit was horrible and, being a kind gentleman enjoying the invitation to explain why an interviewee looked like utter crap, he did so with relish.
Until then, it all meant nothing to me. I grew up poor, where the idea of having a suit at all was fairly special. What the suit was made of, its style, its message, was far above my head. I had no idea that there were messages being sent, thinking that blue was blue, and that was enough.
After the crash course in dress, I had a dilemma. Clearly, I needed a suit made of a fabric created by nature, and of a style that wouldn’t make a pimp blush. Being barely able to feed myself on a regular basis, I did what any young man in that situation would do: I called my mother. I explained that I would never get a decent job unless I had a proper interview suit.
Everything I’ve written up to now was solely for the purpose of telling you my mother’s response.
“Tell them to give you good job, pay you a decent salary, and you can go out and buy nice suits.”
My mother was wrong. She thought her answer was brilliant, and it was a bit on the glib side, but it was just totally, completely, dead wrong. I realized at the time that her cute excuse wasn’t going to work, but my options were limited. Even today, I wonder what would have happened to me if I had a decent suit back in 1981. I would probably be miserable, but that’s another story.
Her answer dealt with my problem, that I didn’t have the money to buy myself a decent suit. Her answer utterly ignored the interviewer side of the equation, that the interviewer wanted to know that I possessed the sensibilities to fit into his firm. It wasn’t his problem to guess at it or forgive my impoverished state, but my problem to prove to him that I not only had the potential as a lawyer to be trusted to sit in his library, but had the potential to sit in his dining room.
How many new lawyers would appreciate this distinction today? How many look at their personal choices, whether it’s those ugly square-toed shoes or that magnificent tattoo of which you’re so proud, and understand that others who see it might not be nearly as impressed with your sensibilities as you are? Worse still, if someone told you that they weren’t going to hire you because you look like a fool with your pants on the ground (not that they would actually tell you), would you become immediately defensive, assert your right to express yourself through your dress and body mutilation, and demand that they accept you the way you are?
This isn’t to say you can’t be anyone you want to be. You can. It’s your right. If you want to be a Goth lawyer, be a Goth lawyer. But then, don’t complain that no one will give you a job because they don’t want a Goth lawyer in their firm. See how that works?
On the other hand, when your personal sartorial choices impact a client’s interests, you’ve pushed the envelope too far. If you want to look like a jerk because that’s what you think makes you particularly attractive, and no one but you suffers the consequences of your choice, then it’s no one’s business but yours. Knock yourself out. But when your choices impact someone else’s life, then you’ve failed in your duty to them. That you cannot do.
But this isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for modes of appearance that don’t conform to the “best practices” for lawyers. I shared an office years ago with a guy named Joe, who preferred suits that looked like he slept in them for a week. Joe was a piece of work, a Columbo-looking character, who used his disheveled appearance as part of his persona, to enormously successful effect in the courtroom. In other words, it worked for him. And that’s what mattered.
Whether your appearance is a matter of expressing personal style or a concession to conformity isn’t the point, as much as understanding that none of us get to be or do whatever we want without suffering the consequences of our choices. Reactions like “but I’m a great lawyer” miss the point. You may well be (and then again, you may not be despite your self-assessment to the contrary), but that doesn’t mean other people want to hang around you or think you will fit in with their culture.
Is it worth it? Perhaps. The law firm that wouldn’t hire me because I was too poor to afford a decent suit may have missed out on a lawyer that would have served them well. But then, it’s not like there weren’t enough lawyers to find one that suited all their specifications back then, and that’s surely the case today. There is a decent chance that if your personal sensibility isn’t going to mesh well with the firm’s culture, you wouldn’t be happy there. Then again, if it leaves you unemployed, deeply in debt and relatively hungry, you won’t be terribly happy that way either.
This isn’t a post to suggest that you must wear the clothing Leo suggests. Leo can do that on his own. Rather, the point here is that young lawyers must appreciate the consequences of their choices in the minds of other people, despite having spent their entire lives thinking that the only opinion that ever matters is their own.
If you didn’t get the job despite having killed the interview, or weren’t retained despite being the perfect lawyer for the case, take a look at yourself and consider whether your choices had something to do with it, and if so, whether it was worth it. And shine your shoes, even those ugly squared-toed ones.