Lawyer Business Casual in 6 Easy Steps

Over the Christmas holiday, Jordan and I had a bit of a discussion about our office’s dress code. I’d been fighting him for months, trying to get him to show up every day in a suit and tie.

Fat chance.

At my wit’s end, I decided that my New Year’s Resolution was to let this go, and we discussed a relaxation of the office dress code to “lawyer business casual.” Jordan gladly agreed.

Imagine my surprise when, on January 2, 2013, Jordan walks in wearing an untucked polo shirt, pleated khakis, and black sneakers.

“What the hell are you wearing?” I blurted.

“Dude, you said we were business casual! I’m biz cas!”

I shook my head. “I’ve made a huge mistake. Listen, Jordan, has anyone ever explained to you what ‘business casual’ means?”

The blank stare told me all I needed to know.

“Lawyer business casual.”

These two words strike fear into my heart, and make fools out of wise men.

I understand that there are some days that you just don’t feel like getting into the full suit rig for a day on the job. Hell, I was with you this week, and wore my L.L. Bean chamois flannel shirts to the office on the coldest of days this week.

Unfortunately, these days “business casual” has devolved into a nightmare — over-sized polo shirts with visible white t-shirts underneath. Poly/cotton blend pleated khakis. Backpacks. White athletic socks with black sneakers. It makes me shudder to think about it. Here’s a quick tip: there’s nothing “business” about sneakers.

You know, I can’t really blame men today for being clueless. In our increasingly casual American society — remember that we’re the country that invented Pajama Jeans — the line between casual and business wear has become too blurred, and there’s simply too little guidance for too many men today.

Today, I hope to be a beacon of guiding light.

What Does Lawyer Business Casual Mean, Mister Fancypants?

To pass business casual muster, you should aim for “not quite a suit, but damn near close.” This is an outfit that will make you look sufficiently professional to impress a client who drops in for a surprise meeting, but not quite enough to appear in court.

I am going to bold this because it is important: business casual is not simply wearing a suit without a tie. That is called “wearing a suit without a tie.” Business casual is also not wearing a shirt, tie, and pants. You don’t look professional when you do this, you just look like Mr. Mackey, m’kay? Would you hire Mr. Mackey to be your lawyer?

No, true business casual is better than that. It’s more creative and lets you get some variation in your wardrobe.

There are several elements to the true business casual outfit:

  1. Blazer or sport jacket;
  2. Collared shirt;
  3. Wool trousers;
  4. Leather shoes;
  5. Tie (optional); and
  6. Pocket Square (optional).

Let’s run though these elements.

Lawyer Business Casual in 6 Easy Steps

1) You should have odd jackets in your professional wardrobe

No, I don’t mean “strange” jacket. Rather, I mean a jacket that isn’t part of a suit. There are generally two categories of odd jackets, both of which are essential to your business casual wardrobe  — blazers and sports coats. You might not know that there’s a difference between the two.


The term “blazer” originates with brightly colored English rowing club jackets. The original blazer was red. These days, you’re more likely to see them in navy, in either a worsted wool or a flannel. Most traditionally found with brass or silver-colored buttons, the navy blazer is classic “Ivy Style” wear.

You ought to own one, preferably in flannel. The great thing about a navy blazer? Even if you are dressed in a schlubby polo shirt, throw on a navy blazer and you’ll class yourself up by an order of magnitude. If you feel that the brass buttons make you look too much like an English schoolboy, try switching them out for horn.

Sport Coat

A sport coat, traditionally, was one worn during “sport” — like hunting — hence its name. These days, a sport coat generally refers to an odd coat that’s not made of a suiting material. You can usually get away with sport coats in slightly louder fabrics that might not be appropriate for a full suit.

Common materials for sport coats include tweeds, tan camel hair, birdseye/nailhead, and some more colorful plaids and checks.

Why have these?

Simple — they add diversity to your wardrobe and allow you to take the formality down a notch from the standard navy or charcoal suit. Or, in a pinch, you can throw on a jacket to spruce up an outfit that’s a bit less formal.

Moreover, there are literally thousands of different materials you can use to make a sport coat. Take a look around and find a fun pattern to wear every once in a while. You think it sounds boring? — take look at a local attorney pal of mine who looks better in business casual than most people look in a tuxedo.

That’s business casual done right.

2) Collared Shirt

I’ve written many, many words about shirts before , so I will keep this to a minimum. Your business casual shirt should follow four rules:

  1. It should be blue, or white, or both (stripes and checks are ok);
  2. It should be ironed;
  3. It should have button cuffs; and
  4. Polo shirts don’t count.

Seriously guys, polo shirts aren’t formal clothing, they’re glorified t-shirts meant for playing golf or tennis. Stop wearing them in professional settings.

3) Wool Trousers

Just as you should own several odd jackets, you should own several pair of trousers that aren’t part of a suit. Why? Versatility, and appropriate business casual wear.

First, let’s get something straight — khakis are NOT business casual. I don’t care what your favorite style columnist says, or what the salesperson at the local Menz Discount Suit Deal$ store tells you. Khakis are essentially jeans that are tan instead of blue. Stop wearing them in a professional setting. You look stupid, juvenile, or both.

Instead, you should have is at least three pair of gray wool trousers: light gray, mid gray, and dark gray. Don’t believe me? Listen to this guy who has worked at J. Press probably for longer than you’ve been alive. I prefer flannel trousers — they have a better texture and are less likely to be mistaken for mis-matched suit pants. Plain wool trousers in light, mid, and dark gray are versatile enough to go with virtually any shirt, jacket, and tie combination, and will spruce up your look from khakis. Whether you get flat front or pleated is up to you — I own both.

Make sure that you get them altered properly (both in waist and leg length) and get them cuffed. Anyone who tells you that cuffs are for old men is stupid and wrong.

4) Shoes

We’ve already been over this before. The nice part of a business casual outfit is you’re afforded an extra bit of leeway with shoes — you don’t have to stick with just a black or brown cap-toe. Try a burgundy loafer,  a shell cordovan plain-toe blucher, or a tan semi-brogue.

Sneakers are always unacceptable. Vibram Five-fingers should be grounds for disbarment.

5) Tie

Chose your own adventure:

5a) I hate wearing ties!

Good news! You don’t have to wear one if you’re in a business casual outfit. Consider a pocket square, though, to spruce up your appearance. Make sure that if you’re not wearing a tie, and are instead wearing your collar unbuttoned, that you have a v-neck undershirt on so it doesn’t show. Undergarments should not be seen.

5b) I love wearing ties!

Good news! The business casual environment gives you a bit of extra leeway with experimentation. Bring out those ties that might be less appropriate with a full suit — like knit, wool, or bow ties. Your imagination’s the limit.

6) Pocket Square

If you’re not wearing a tie, you should have a pocket square. If you don’t own any, buy some. Start with white linen.If you are wearing a tie, tread lightly. Don’t get too matchy-matchy with your tie. Burn any matching tie and pocket-square sets you own.

In either case, stick with plain white linen if you’re an amateur. Cream silk is a good second choice. If you’re feeling more adventurous, follow this sage advice.

There’s your primer on real business casual dress. Feel free to ask additional questions or berate me in the comments below. Happy New Year, and until next time.

(image: young casual man going thumb down from Shutterstock)


  1. Avatar Bunnie Watson says:

    I’m new to your blog, and perhaps have missed past rants. Zowie, why do you care so much about this? Fashion fetishism is unbecoming to everyone, from Karl Lagerfeld on down. I also note no attention is paid to those of us of the female persuasion, who are bereft of even the optional ties and pocket squares. Seriously guys, the world does not revolve around what you are wearing today. Now that you have enunciated the details of your dress code, however, Jordan will likely reconsider his sartorial faux pas and fall in step as a spiffy lawyer clone.

    • Avatar Leo says:

      This is a hyperbolized advice column on men’s professional dress that’s based not on fashion, but on solid traditional pieces for a professional wardrobe.

      As I have no experience with women’s professional wear, I think I’d be ill-suited to discuss the matter. Lauren Roso here at the Lawyerist handles that quite aptly:

  2. Avatar Randall R. says:

    Business casual = sportcoat over Captain America t-shirt.

  3. Avatar denbigh says:

    Wow. So very snippy about something so inconsequential.

    The sooner clients are conditioned to stop expecting to see us in the Formalwear Lawyer Costume (or its cousin the “damn near close” “Casual” Lawyer Costume) every day, the better.

  4. Avatar Andrea says:

    Loving this, as I am always on the end of the spectrum that believes better to over-dress than under. Being female – this adds a whole ‘nother layer of complexity. As does the part of the business in which you reside, and the industry you work in.

    Me – female VP Sales. Industry, blue collar, environment – techie. Average dress in the office – Sr. Management in 10 yr old pleated khakis and a button down with a company logo. The tech team might be in flips and holey jeans with a knit beanies on. Oh – and matching black shoes AND black belt is rarely seen. The black belt, brown shoes fiasco lives on.

    I prefer to look like the J Crew catalog. Blazer, top, trousers, nice jewelry and leather shoes. And as much as that makes me stand out – so be it. It stands out in a good way.

  5. Avatar Jonas Eigil Nielsen says:

    I agree with your opinion most of the way. However, in mentioning bow ties, you link to a page (Brooks Brothers) which merely displays pre-tied bow ties. In my opinion, pre-tied bowties make an even worse business casual faux pas than any other item on your list!

  6. Avatar Chris Cotteta says:

    Nicely done, Leo. I couldn’t agree more.

    I think the most important thing that a well put-together outfit does is communicate to others that you care about what you’re doing. It has something to do with aesthetics, but more to do with giving an appropriate context to ones actions.

    I get the impression that people “dress down” because its more comfortable and familiar. Perhaps there is value in being less comfortable, which also creates a kind of mental distance between people. Full dress is not arrogance; it encourages independence of thought and sets the stage for more ambitious discourse.

  7. Avatar Frederick says:

    Generally agree with this. I will say that it is safe to have ecru and even pink shirts and tan slacks are acceptable to most.

  8. Avatar John B says:

    Incorrect. Your description of business casual is not business casual.

    At 99.99999999% of corporate offices business causual is:
    – Khaki or black pants
    – A button-up shirt
    – Dress shoes

    • Sam Glover Sam G. says:

      I think what Leo is saying is that you’re doing it wrong.

        • Avatar Illuminatus says:

          May I ask a question?
          I understand it’s been almost two years sicnhe this absolutely weasome piece was written, but stil…
          I am a student but have never loved T-shirts and jeans as my colleegues do. So I want to try something more stylish, I guess, but not too much, I hope you understand.
          Is it OK to wear navy blazer or a sport coat and grey trousers ( there was written they were suit trousers, but they are odd ones, I guess)?
          And if it’s a good combination, is it OK to wear blue shirt with that? And if I want some less formal, may I go with pastel colored shirts, e.g. “soft pink” and so on.
          Hope I didn’t cause much trouble.
          P.S. Do you have any other articles on men’s fashion? I’d really like to read them.

          • Avatar Riffed says:

            There are two very different schools of men’s fashion:
            1. Articles written by fashionistas who happen to have white collar jobs;
            2. What actual businessmen wear, and who would chuckle if they saw anyone wearing something recommended by #1, but don’t write fashion articles.

            Honestly, nearly all businessmen have a pretty loose definition of what’s appropriate. We’re mainly focused on doing our actual jobs, and want you to be focused too. So here’s the key rules:

            1. In fashion, you’re essentially trying to make your clothes stand out as much as possible within the defined framework of that type of clothing. But in business, the idea is to blend in as much as possible so your clothes aren’t the focus.
            2. If you wear a soft pink pastel shirt into a room of 10 businessmen, I guarantee you what will happen is the following:
            A. 1-2 guys, near the bottom of the food chain in that room, will think “wow, that’s an excellent choice of color – he really pulled that outfit off!”
            B. The other 8-9 men in the room, including the decision-makers, will think ” what the &@$@ is he wearing? Jesus, a pink shirt. Oh well, hope he thought as much about the client presentation as he did about what shirt to wear”.
            3. Do NOT make the mistake of thinking what you wear will be what gets you noticed (at least in a good way) in any job that isn’t in actual fashion. Your supervisors and clients are looking solely at your work product, and your clothes are a distraction from that.
            4. Just be reasonably clean-cut, wear what most other people are wearing in that office, and make your work stand out. Trying to make your clothes stand out will impress the wrong people.

  9. Avatar Mr. Business Appraiser says:

    So I’ve read that advice about V-neck undershirts but it’s bad advice if you happen to be a wolf at the collar line. What would you recommend for the hairy chest set?

    Also, wool trousers seem itchy and hot. I’d pass. What’s the next alternative for pants?

    • Avatar Leo says:

      Whoever said that it was a bad idea is wrong. Embrace your manly chest. If its excessive, trim appropriately. It’s the same rule for unruly eyebrows, nose hair, and ear hair.

      Well made wool pants can be made from lightweight tropical wools, which are cooler than linen or cotton, through heavy flannel for winter.

      Some people are very sensitive to wool. I am not, and many better quality wool trousers aren’t as itchy as lower quality, cheaper wools.

  10. Avatar Matthew S. says:

    So my colleague, Leo, the wise sage:

    (1) Can a lawyer account for regional differences in style when deciding on business-casual attire?
    (2) Do these rules apply to always-business-casual offices, or just specific business-casual days?
    (3) Is it acceptable to wear blue jeans on designated blue-jeans days?

    I, for one, will never wear a blazer or sport coat, much less a blazer with a pocket square. That’s just me.

    And pocket squares for business casual? Seriously? In a prior post, you said that when interviewing a pocket-square “might not be the best option if you’re interviewing in a very-conservative firm.” That advice seems to be inconsistent with your advice in this post that pocket-squares are OK for business-casual firms.

    Finally, if, as you say, I should wear a blazer or sport coat and nice wool trousers and a nice shirt and nice shoes, I might as well wear a full suit and save the mental energy required to put your preferred business-casual ensemble together.

    Otherwise, I liked the post, and learned some new things. Different perspectives are good.

    • Avatar Leo says:

      ***(1) Can a lawyer account for regional differences in style when deciding on business-casual attire?***

      You can follow these rules anywhere and look good. By “regional differences”, what do you mean? Like can you wear a hat and boots while in Texas?

      ***(2) Do these rules apply to always-business-casual offices, or just specific business-casual days?***

      Business casual, generally.

      ***(3) Is it acceptable to wear blue jeans on designated blue-jeans days?***

      Sure. I think jeans are always unacceptable office wear. I understand that I am a minority here. If you’re going to wear jeans though, you can do so without looking like Mitt Romney.

      ***I, for one, will never wear a blazer or sport coat, much less a blazer with a pocket square. That’s just me.**

      Then don’t. But that’s not business casual — that’s just casual.

      ***And pocket squares for business casual? Seriously? In a prior post, you said that when interviewing a pocket-square “might not be the best option if you’re interviewing in a very-conservative firm.” That advice seems to be inconsistent with your advice in this post that pocket-squares are OK for business-casual firms.***

      Not at all inconsistent. The interview is not about your sense of style, it’s about you as a candidate, and it’s very formal. You want to dress as conservatively as possible. But once you have the job, go wild. Furthermore, a pocket square doesn’t necessarily make an outfit more formal — in fact, it can have the exact opposite effect.

      ***Finally, if, as you say, I should wear a blazer or sport coat and nice wool trousers and a nice shirt and nice shoes, I might as well wear a full suit and save the mental energy required to put your preferred business-casual ensemble together.***

      Very different animals. Odd coat and trousers put off a distinctly different vibe than a suit. I’d never wear an odd coat and trousers to court (unless it was a dire emergency).

      • Avatar Joan Barros says:

        I can think of a regional difference. I live in the Caribbean and because of the weather and the temperatures it can be pretty hard to wear a full suit or even a blazer. It gets really hot here.

        People still do it though in high end business cases. Like banks and law firms and stuff like that.

        I think it should be fine to relax (or adjust) the dress code to the weather. For practical reasons. This doesn’t mean dress badly though.

        PD: I really dislike that you put your OPINION above everyone else and you think you have the absolute truth. Just wanted to get that out there. Cheers.

    • Avatar KMack says:

      FYI: Cowboy boots in Texas are casual, business casual, business, and black-tie appropriate. The only difference between the categories is the level of cleanliness of said boots.

      Fortunately, my office is casual casual. If I’m meeting with a client or attending a business lunch or professional meeting, I’ll suit up. Otherwise, I’ve had days where I stroll into work in a t-shirt, ripped jeans, and flip-flops and have not been the most casually dressed person in the office.

  11. Avatar Dave says:

    Love the article, but I do have one correction (suggestion?) about trousers.
    The general rule is pleated=cuffs, flat front=straight leg.

  12. Avatar Andrea says:


    Pleated is out. Period. IF you don’t believe me, ask Tim Gunn ….


    • Avatar Leo says:

      Tim Gunn is wrong. He might have a great eye for high fashion, but his taste in menswear is questionable, at best.

      The reason that many pleated pants as worn by the clueless look awful is that men are wearing them like jeans — slung around the hips. This looks stupid.

      They should be worn at the true waist — near the belly button. And they usually look better when worn with an odd jacket.

      Today, I’m proudly wearing pleated pants with my suit.

  13. Avatar Paul says:

    There are various other colors of shirts for a reason. Would someone in a classy purple, pink, light green, or dark red button up shirt would be less business casual? There are very tasteful versions of those colors in the major brands sold at the major men’s clothing stores and they look quite professional. Pair them with a solid pair of wool slacks and you got good business casual in my mind.

  14. Avatar Dan says:

    Tomorrow we’ll discuss “Business Music” and why that doesn’t include death metal.

  15. Avatar Seth says:

    You’ve left out considerations for eye wear.

  16. Avatar Andrew P. says:

    I respectfully dissent. If you’re under 30 (really, under 40), for the love of all that is good and just, do not cuff your pants. Also, if you are under 40 and weigh less than 300 pounds, flat fronts.

  17. Avatar Lee Swales says:

    Great blog, besides the pant cuffing advice. Even here, in deep dark Africa, pant cuffing is a faux pas, especially for those under retirement age.

  18. Avatar Carrie in California says:

    OCBD*. Classic “casual” shirt that translates well in a business casual setting depending on industry.

    Ironically, button down shirts were the first real polo shirts. The jockey’s got sick of their collars smacking them in the face while in play.

    The shirt we know now as the polo shirt is as you pointed out, a golf shirt.

    *Oxford Cloth Button Down

  19. Avatar Butch says:

    Well, where I live in the far north, “dressed up” means a T-shirt with sleeves, so luckily I can ignore this ridiculous article.

  20. Avatar BrianNZ says:

    Which is worse: sporting chest-hair or seeing my round-neck t-shirt under an open-collar button-up? And (different topic), have you written anything about matching ties to shirts to which you can point me please?

  21. Avatar MS8888 says:

    Can a light blue oxford button down shirt be worn with black pants?

  22. Avatar Pat says:

    As long as you are good at your job no one cares what you wear presuming it isn’t offensive. I earn about $450k a year and I wear a t-shirt, cargo pants, and running shoes to the office. Do you think anyone cared Steve Jobs wore a t-shirt, jeans, and running shoes? What you described as business casual may as well be a full suit.

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