The year was 2008. I had just taken a job working for a guy James in suburban Pennsylvania. It was my first lawyer job. Before that, I had clerked for AnapolSchwartz, a firm regarded by many (including me) to be one of the best personal injury law firms in the country.
Now here I was working for a small neighborhood firm in suburban Philadelphia.
At first, every day I showed up dressed to the nines – a fresh suit, a tie, and a pressed white dress shirt. I was a big time Philly city lawyer who was going to show them how it was done. I was surprised to find that James wasn’t impressed. James never wore a suit to the office. For him, it was always khakis, a polo, or a button up shirt. No tie.
James once quipped after a video deposition: “One of these days I’m going to make a sleeve that looks like a suit and wear it to a video deposition. This way it looks like I’m wearing a suit on the video when I hand the witness documents.”
One day I dropped by his office and asked him about why he never wore a suit:
“Hey James, you got a second? I have a random question for you. Why don’t you wear a suit to the office?”
“Suits don’t impress me. I’m a real lawyer. I’m the type of person who is willing to get a little dirty. Suits are for attorneys in large law firms who I eat up in court. They’re usually afraid to get dirty. I’m the type of lawyer who will roll up my sleeves, dive into a box of old documents, or go inspect a site on a rainy day. I wear suits to depositions and to court, but never to the office. Suits just turn off potential clients who will see me as stuffy. That’s why I don’t ever wear a suit when I don’t have to. Wearing a suit stresses form over substance. Don’t worry about looking good, just be good.”
James always took great pleasure in defeating stuffy lawyers from big law firms, which he did regularly. James thought suits were for lawyers who were afraid to get dirty. Refusing to wear a suit went to James’s nature as a “trench attorney.” James was a real person, and he wanted his wardrobe to reflect that. It’s funny, because James was loaded, but you’d never know that if you saw him on the street.
Somehow it made sense.
Since I looked up to James, I adopted his style – khakis and a dress shirt or a polo. Suits were reserved for court appearances.
Luckily for me, I also have some successful lawyers in my family. One afternoon I called my Uncle Jim and asked him if we could get lunch. My Uncle Jim has a very successful law firm in Center City Philadelphia, where he caters to high end commercial clients and insurance carriers. I showed up wearing khakis and a sweater.
Now, Jim looks exactly like how you expect lawyers to look. He drives a brand new BMW, always wears a suit, and most of his dress shirts have his initials embroidered on them. If you took one look at Jim, you would say “That guy is a very successful lawyer.” And you would be correct.
Like James, Uncle Jim built his practice from the ground up, one client at a time through excellent lawyering. Jim has tried hundreds of jury trials and developed a reputation for excellent trial advocacy. Uncle Jim started as a small time solo lawyer to having a thriving complex litigation practice downtown. When I couldn’t afford it, Uncle Jim offered to pay my fees to sit for the New Jersey bar exam. Plus, Uncle Jim was always kind enough to give me his old suits, ties, and dress shirts… in addition to practical lawyer advice. The day I was licensed to practice, Uncle Jim bought me a copy of Jay Foonberg’s book – How to Start and Build a Law Practice. That single act is quite possibly the best thing anyone has ever done for me. Uncle Jim is always full of good advice on how to do it right, and generous with his time.
I looked up to Uncle Jim in the same way I looked up to James.
As usual, when we met, Uncle Jim was dressed in a full suit and tie, which didn’t surprise me. At one point during our lunch he asked me:
“Why aren’t you in a suit?”
“My boss doesn’t wear one so I don’t. It’s kind of our thing, I guess.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Because you don’t look like a lawyer. I know a lot of law firms have gone ‘business casual.’ I never will. As a lawyer, you’re supposed to be the one telling your clients how they should act. You’re supposed to be protecting them and counseling them. So I think it’s a bit silly that we’re now being told to dress just like our clients. How can you inspire confidence in a client that you’re going to do a good job on their matter if you just look like some schlub on the street? If you want your clients to take you seriously, you should wear a suit. It makes you look like a lawyer.”
“Okay… but why does that matter?”
“Most of your clients have no idea if you’re actually a good lawyer or not. They probably don’t read your pleadings. They’ll never show up to court and watch you argue a motion. Clients won’t judge you on the quality of your work, but they will judge you by your ability to inspire confidence in them. And you will inspire confidence in clients by coming off professionally – in your emails, your letters, and in the way you dress. You can be a mediocre attorney, but clients will think you’re great if you treat them with respect and appear professionally. Although my goal is to be the best attorney in the courtroom, I also think professionalism is equally important. That’s why I wear a suit to the office and everywhere else. If you want people to consider you as their lawyer, you should look like their lawyer. If you wear a suit everywhere, people will get the impression that you’re a lawyer. Don’t you want the world to imagine you arguing in a courtroom rather than selling coffee?”
I left kind of confused. Both James and Jim have thriving law practices. James didn’t believe in wearing a suit to the office because he felt it stressed form over substance and turned off clients as “stuffy”. However, Uncle Jim felt wearing a suit was important, because he thought wearing a suit inspired confidence in clients and potential clients, and it makes the world view you as a lawyer.
Both made compelling points.
But what should I do? Wear a suit regularly or go business casual? James and Uncle Jim have similar practices, so which one was right?
Fast forward to 2012: It was a Friday morning. I had been in the office all night before. Since it was Friday, I decided to roll in wearing a t-shirt and shorts. My partner Leo came into my office and looked at me. I could tell he was less than thrilled with my attire.
“Oh, we have casual Friday now?”, Leo asked me.
“Sorry dude. I was here late last night. I didn’t think I was going to come in to the office today, but I decided it was necessary. No one is coming in today so don’t worry about it.”
Like my Uncle Jim, I rarely see Leo not wearing a suit.
Then we had our first actual conversation about branding. Are we a suit and tie firm? Are we a casual firm? Do we have casual Fridays? Is there a dress code around here?
My opinion was “meh” because I had seen it done both ways.
Leo mentioned a CLE he had taken with Kline & Specter, where Tom Kline (one of the best trial lawyers in Philadelphia) said he picked up a great case just because he was wearing a suit. A potential client assumed Tom was a lawyer because of the suit, they started talking, and Tom landed a big case.
Since I didn’t care all that much, I told Leo I would go with whatever he wanted to do. Suit and tie was now the office dress code. We’re young lawyers, so we figured that we may as well look the part. We’ve taken the “Uncle Jim” view of things.
That said, I still don’t think it makes a huge difference one way or another. It just depends on what type of image you want to give the world about you. James and Jim decided what type of image they wanted to give their clients and it worked. Although the approach was different, the result was the same – James and Jim both became successful attorneys. Both became successful attorneys through hard work, experience, and a dedication to the profession.
They just did it with a different style.