One thing Sam’s recent post  about a GLBT litigators panel didn’t discuss is an issue that a subset of GLBTQ attorneys face regularly: what if you are non-gender-conforming in appearance and dress and want to look professional at your law job?

This isn’t the place to discuss the wide variety of possibilities encompassed by the notion of being non-gender-conforming. Some people in that subset don’t dress in gender-conforming ways but do not identify as trans*. Some people identify as genderfluid and move between genders. Some folks identify as neither male nor female. All of these things – and a likely infinite number of others – can contribute to greater-than-usual fears about what to wear. Similarly, Lawyerist could likely generate an infinite number of posts arguing about what constitutes “professional” dress in the modern practice era. For purposes of this post, let’s define “professional” as “things you’d wear to court” and “things you’d wear to meet a new client.”

When we think about “lawyer clothing” it is almost inevitable that we picture a man in a conservative suit. When we switch to thinking about women, we end up conceiving of a skirt version of that same suit or the pants version but with distinctly feminine tailoring like wide legs, nipped waist, and the obligatory feminine blouse. What if those things don’t really work for you?

A brief aside: often when this discussion comes up, the solution that is offered is something akin to “well, how hard can it be to just wear __________ for one day (or 8 hours, or one week, or forever)?” Answer: actually really hard. Envision yourself wearing clothing you hate most, feel least like yourself in, doesn’t reflect who you are or how you feel, and is actually the opposite, gender-wise, of the clothing you usually wear. Then, envision having to wear that to events that are already high-stress, like meeting a client or appearing in front of a judge.

I’m unequipped to address how to fix this on behalf of people who would traditionally dress in menswear but don’t wish to. I’m reasonably equipped, hopefully, to provide some input for those who would be expected to traditionally dress in womenswear but don’t feel comfortable doing so. My tips, after a dozen-plus years of practicing as a woman who has never worn, and is unlikely to ever wear, traditionally “female” clothing, are these:

  • Pick your battles. There are concessions you probably feel comfortable making and concessions you likely don’t. For example, I generally don’t wear a tie in the court/client setting, though I’ll wear bow ties to work if I’m not seeing anyone external. For me, the possible confusion and hostility that it might spawn simply isn’t worth it. Put another way, you may not want to pick a scorched-earth battle over something that isn’t all that important to you to wear.
  • Stand your ground. Similarly, there’s probably concessions you can’t and won’t make. Don’t feel comfortable in skirts? Don’t wear them (but please read the bullet point below this one).
  • Keep it dressy. If you’re stepping outside of conventional norms, you’ve likely got even more pressure to look and act professional. If you’re not going to wear skirts, make sure your suit and pants are professional and tailored. You don’t get a pass just because you don’t like wearing something.
  • Get a good tailor. Very few women are shaped to just wear menswear right out of the box. Alternatives: buy menswear and have it tailored, or buy womenswear that looks as much like menswear as possible. Both are viable, though the former may break the bank.  Not an option: buying menswear and leaving it sloppy and wrong-sized.
  • Prepare to create and experience discomfort. An ideal world would be one in which professional clothing wasn’t gendered and people weren’t discomfited by people dressing in nontraditional ways. We don’t live in that world yet, and people might be uncomfortable, which in turn may make you uncomfortable. Fortunately, Minnesotans are far, far too wedded to the image of “Minnesota Nice” to generally say anything overt about what you might be wearing.
  • Know that your appearance choices may indeed be self-limiting, career-wise.  See above. Ideal world, not there yet.

In an ideal world, we could likely all wear pajamas or Snuggies to work, but there will always be those people who are distinctly unhappy in Snuggies too, so until then perhaps we can continue to think about how to make everyone feel comfortable.