If The Suit Fits

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.

15 thoughts on “If The Suit Fits

  1. Jake DiMare

    Just one more reminder of why I should feel so fortunate to have fallen into technology for a career path. When the demand for your skills and experience is higher than the supply, what’s between your ears becomes much more important than what’s covering your skin.

    1. SHG Post author

      People who work in technology tend to think in binary terms, which works fine for computers but not particularly well for critical thought or to grasp of complex concepts. Nothing in this post suggests that skills and experience are less important than what’s covering your skin, but perhaps your work in technology helps to explain your inability to understand what to most people would be a brutally simple idea. As I keep reminding you, you should seriously consider spending your valuable time at a blog that it more appreciative of your insight.

      1. BL1Y

        He is right that where demand is greater than supply, the supply side can dress worse and worry less about making a good impression because the demand side will put in more effort to finding out who’s valuable. It’s just not a particularly interesting insight.

        The more important distinction between how tech looks at talent and how law does would be if job applicants are able to quickly demonstrate their talent.

        An artist looking for a gig will present a portfolio of work, and that’s going to be overwhelmingly the deciding factor in a hiring decision. I could see something similar working in certain tech areas, being able to have a portfolio of websites programmed, or games written, smart phone apps, etc.

        Law doesn’t have a good portfolio mechanism. You’ll have your writing sample, but it’s something you wrote a 1L, spent two months on, and got a lot of help from your professors and classmates. Maybe I’m just overlooking some effective and efficient way of gauging a young lawyer’s talent pre-hiring, but I suspect it’s mostly just going to remain proxies like the shine on your shoes.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re viewing it like an outsider, and you’re very wrong. Law has many stakeholders, from client to opposing counsel to judge to jury, all of whom make broad judgements on a full panoply of things. You still think like a law student, as if a writing sample tells us whether you can cross a DEA agent, or whether your ability to cross enables you to persuade the GC of a multinational to give you his business. He is a simplistic fool. You didn’t do much better.

          1. BL1Y

            I’m going to assume you’re just in a bad mood because of your web hosting problems. I said the writing sample doesn’t work. Your complaint is that it touches on only one or two skills and leaves out a lot of other important skills. My point was that it doesn’t even work well for the skills it’s supposed to be showcasing.

            1. SHG Post author

              I am in a foul mood today, but that has no bearing on your flawed reasoning. Another day, I might give you a nice little tummy rub before explaining why your reasoning was wrong because I’m usually very nice and empathetic fellow.

          2. BL1Y

            Where’s the flaw?

            We seem to just have different reasons for thinking a writing sample doesn’t serve as a good indicator of the lawyer’s ability. You say it’s because it leaves out a lot of skills, and I say because the conditions it’s written in hurt its usefulness. I’m pretty sure we’re both right, and its uselessness is simply overdetermined.

            1. SHG Post author

              My apologies. I edited my comment above, but because my host failed me for a bit, it didn’t post until just about the same time as your comment. We agree about the writing sample. We do not about supply and demand.

              Edit: And now I realize that my edit didn’t go through because my friggin’ host failed again. Here was what I wrote:

              Being in a better mood now, I will try to make things a bit clearer for you. This was your opening paragraph:

              He is right that where demand is greater than supply, the supply side can dress worse and worry less about making a good impression because the demand side will put in more effort to finding out who’s valuable. It’s just not a particularly interesting insight.

              While I agree it wasn’t particularly interesting, it was similarly inaccurate for lawyers. First, it’s a false dichotomy, that it’s either competence or appearance for lawyers. It’s both. It’s everything. Both the brilliant lawyer who looks like crap and the beautiful lawyer who is dumber than dirt will find that they are lacking. Attempts to compare lawyers to others usually fail, as there is no other occupation or profession with the same demands and expectations. There has never been a time, regardless of supply and demand, when lawyers could survive either by brains or looks alone.

              Even back in the good old days, where there was no oversupply of lawyers like today, the smart ones who were also able to present themselves appropriately had the work, and the dopes and slobs sat there looking at the silent phone. That’s our life, unlike IT.

          3. BL1Y

            Oh, I don’t think appearance stops making a difference just because the supply/demand balance shifts. But, it does mean you’re less likely to be denied a job simply because of a bad suit.

            Of course, that fact is only really relevant to two types of employees. The first are ones who only have bad suits. The second are people who want to dress as poorly as they can get away with. Though I don’t really know why anyone would want to be in that latter group. Casual offices can be nice, but you don’t clean up with the ladies at happy hour dressed in torn jeans and a smelly t-shirt (source: I’ve tried, suits are better).

            1. SHG Post author

              Nobody wants a lawyer who can’t carry his appearance. No matter how competent you are, appearance remains a part of who and what lawyers are. Not the most important, but still a factor of consequence.

          4. BL1Y

            Any tips on how to balance dressing like a serious, professional lawyer, while not looking overdressed for the Starbucks you’re meeting your clients in?

            Also, do you think Google Glass will simply be the next item you must have, or an absolute game changer?

  2. Leo

    I guess I should stop writing about my working vacations and start telling people how to dress again. But how many times can one say the same thing before it just becomes static?

    1. SHG Post author

      Either dig deeper or focus more. And the point here, that clothing may not be more importance than competence, but still can matter, shows the collateral aspects of attire. Think about it. There’s plenty left to discuss.

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