That Suit You’re Wearing Is Only a Uniform

Some lawyers are very particular about what they wear. I have no problem with that. We’re all particular about something. I’m very particular about music on vinyl. To each his or her own.

But I think it’s worthwhile to point out that while it’s obvious that my love of music on vinyl has nothing to do with lawyering, it might not be obvious (amid all this fun fashion advice) that what you wear has very, very little (if anything) to do with how good a lawyer you are. And if you’re not interested in fashion, that’s just fine. Because your lawyering clothes are nothing but a uniform like any other.

Got spit shine?

I served in the military, and I’ve had other jobs that required me to wear a uniform. Uniforms serve two purposes. They are utilitarian, meaning they are the clothing that is practical for the job. My Army uniform was highly functional and durable. The one we wore every day to go eat lunch was the same one we wore when we were in the field. Similarly, people who work with their hands and get dirty wear clothes that can stand up to that abuse. Surgeons wear scrubs. It all makes sense.

But the other reason people wear uniforms is to identify them as people who do a particular job. In other words, to achieve uniformity, meaning everybody looks the same—no one is unique. The parts are interchangeable—everyone is uniform. If you can’t find the cat food at Target, you know to look for someone in khahki pants and a red shirt. Easy.

Not a clown costume, but close enough

That lawyer costume you are required to wear every day identifies you as someone who has to wear expensive, uncomfortable, impractical clothing to make you look like everyone else who has to wear the same clothes (with minor variations) so that you can be identified as educated and important professionals. Wait, that doesn’t work, since anyone can wear a suit, and lots of people do for no good reason. Why does a real estate agent wear a suit? A basketball coach? Why does my dentist wear a tie? Who knows?

And who cares? Except for the people who are into clothing as a hobby, nobody else gives a damn what brand suit you wear, or what your shirt collar style choice is. People who worry about clothes will notice only if you worry about it too. But nobody else really notices or cares (including your client) unless your shirttail is half untucked or there is a huge glob of clam dip on your tie. You’re just another suit in the crowd.

You get paid for what you know, think, say, and write. Put your focus there. Until business casual comes to the courthouse, follow Leo’s advice and buy good-quality clothing second hand (but just because it’s the smartest way to blow your money on something as silly as a lawyer costume).

(photo: man with a paper-bag over his head from Shutterstock)

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  • Bret Moore

    Insofar as we should pay attention to things like typography, to make our writing look better, likewise (I think) we should pay attention to the costume. This is in the book Secrets of Attilla the Hun, which my retired Army-officer dad gave me once upon a time years ago… basically “Huns should dress (and look) like Huns.” Which is what you’re saying. However, all things being equal, who or what is more persuasive: the thing or person that looks deliberately put together and polished, or the great argument/er that looks like it was thrown together at the last minute?

    • Attila the Hun: Noted more for brutality than for his fashion sense. Just saying.

    • Andy Mergendahl

      I hope lawyers don’t get an edge by wearing slightly-more-impressive clothing. I know they get an edge by being more likeable.

  • I think the goal is not so much to wear the most expensive, most outrageous, most attention-drawing outfit; rather, we should wear the uniform well, the same way other professions do — everything well-cared for, shoes shined, clothing pressed, etc. It’s not the brand that matters — it’s the way you wear it.

  • I think one of the most important considerations in how you dress should be that you are true to who you are. Your clothing sends a message and is really part of your marketing. I know attorneys who wear lime green and purple suits and are excellent attorneys who are very successful. They are comfortable in their own skin. If I tried to pull it off I would feel like a Fruit of the Loom ad. But it works for them. More power to them.

  • shg

    Some judges just love a man in uniform.

  • Leo

    I want to write a counter—point to this point. Maybe I will.