Will Women Lawyers Embrace Fashion Faux Pas?

women lawyersEarlier this week, two elder stateswomen of the Millennial generation offered some career advice suitable for women lawyers: when you can’t beat ‘em, transform the game.

On Tuesday night, Serena Williams played her older sister Venus for the 27th time, officially, on a tennis court. And amidst all the chatter about age and family and calendar Grand Slams, one topic remained absent throughout the night – what are they wearing? Both Venus and Serena have long been criticized for their fashion choices – beads, skin-colored shorts, lace corsets. But after years of criticism, the Williams sisters decided to take the talk into a different direction. They didn’t change their clothes to suit the critics. Instead, they started a fashion line. Now they sell the designs that had once made some traditional commentators, and fans, weep for the state of the game.

Criticizing professional female attire is a well-worn art. Women of all professions are subject to it. This past summer in Cannes, actresses were excluded from entering a film showing because they weren’t wearing heels. And earlier this year in Hollywood, Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, led a social media campaign called #AskHerMore. The campaign requested that red carpet reporters ask actresses more than, “Who are you wearing?” Ask them about their movie, future projects, books they have read or politicians they have met. In short, ask them the same questions you would ask male actors. As Witherspoon stated:

This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses. There are 44 nominees this year that are women and we are so happy to be here and talk about the work that we’ve done.

Women and what to wear to work. Whether athletes, actresses, or attorneys, there is no shortage of people willing to comment on the issue. And while male lawyers are subject to some fashion rules as well, the reality is that the do’s and don’t’s of fashion fall disproportionately on female lawyers. Suddenly, a female lawyer’s abilities are judged, not by her competency or zeal on the job, but rather by the length of her sleeves or the color of her blouse. Take a look at this Jezebel article critiquing a post by an NYU law professor dictating what female associates should wear to interviews. The article has law students sharing the advice that they’ve received. Wear a ponytail, but a low one. Make sure to button your suit jacket. Heels are definitely required. Wear makeup, but not too much makeup. And for interviews? Skirt suits are mandatory. As another blogger put it:

We know, we know: feminism, equality, misogyny, etc. We’re not saying it’s cool. We’re saying it’s a crazy world out there and you should go with the most conservative option available if you want the job — which for women is a skirt suit.

OK, so let’s agree on a rule – skirt suits and muted colors are safe. Except this rule then gets criticized from another outlet – fashion bloggers. Last month, female attorneys in California faced criticism that they were in the throes of a “fashion drought” due to the lack of pizzazz in their wardrobe. The article, written by two styling consultants and published in the Marin County Bar Association newsletter, lamented the lack of variety in female lawyers’ clothing and encouraged several ways to spice things up. The article stated that of the 20 women attorneys observed, only one was a style “go.” The stylists noted the absence of accessories in the wardrobe selections and a preference amongst those observed for sticking with only black and muted colors. The suggestions for adding more visual appeal to a courtroom outfit included adding accessories, colorful blouses “to cover trouble areas,” and low heels and wedges. Notably the critics had nothing to say about the male lawyers’ fashion choices.

The stylists, since they are not lawyers, likely missed out on the reality of a woman lawyer’s life. And the reality is that many women lawyers will choose the more conservative and sober options because that’s the nature of the profession we work in. Many of our decision-makers – judges, partners, CEOs, General Counsels, even jurors – are often older men and women who hail from a more conservative tradition of professional dress. The uber-casual workplace was a phenomenon of the late 90s Silicon Valley craze, a phenomenon that, over the past twenty years, has slowly made its way across the country. Only not to the legal world, just yet.

So what are you, young Millennial woman lawyer, to do? If you feel more comfortable in flats than heels, bare legs than panty hose, and pants than skirts, is there hope for your future as a woman attorney? Obviously, the answer is yes. You may not start a fashion line like Venus and Serena. And you may not be wearing your Converse sneakers to the next film festival. But as a Millennial woman, you are part of a generation that is leading the casualwear transformation of the American workplace. And the American workplace knows it.

Quick, what’s as traditional as a 164-year old law firm? How about a 164 year-old insurance company? Recently, venerable insurance company MassMutual decided to change its dress code to simply “dress appropriately.” The company not only put the announcement on Facebook, it explicitly stated that it changed the dress code to attract Millennials, “to create a work environment that’s more familiar and appealing … a plus from both a recruiting and retention perspective.” And MassMutual isn’t alone. As the Wall Street Journal reports, blue chip companies like IBM, Coca-Cola and Visa have all relaxed their office dress codes as well.

Now, of course there are universal standards of legal professionalism that will withstand the test of time, even in the fashion arena. No one is going to be arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in denim cutoffs – we can hope. But the legal profession can and should take cues from the rest of the business world that there is a generation of smart, young professionals out there who are recreating the rules of the fashion game. Some may want to wear skirt suits with pantyhose. Others may not. There should be enough space in our profession for both. And if women attorneys don’t find the space, they will create it on their own. Millennial women are moving into leadership positions in the corporate world. They will soon have the ability to redefine the rules of professional fashion. As they do so, they should take a page from the Venus and Serena rule-breaking playbook. It’s the page that says this: “Women with power can accomplish absolutely everything.”

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