Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
When I was six all I wanted in life was some overalls like Charlene Mitchell. Something must have changed between then and me turning 15 because from then on all I could think about was having a work wardrobe like Ally McBeal.
And, Reader, I made it happen. I can honestly say that I might have gone into another profession if the clothes were as good. I looked into joining the police but because you had to do two years on the beat before coming out of uniform, I just couldn’t face the ill-fitting trousers.
I should say now that if you are more interested in the share price of the Ince Group or the intricacies of Part 36 this is not the article for you and that is fine.
For the uninitiated, Ally McBeal’s work look consisted of a variety of very smart, very short skirt suits, heels that made her legs look so long and thin that they were almost invisible to the human eye, good hair and a big takeaway coffee cup. At 15, my mum had let me have some sort of style cut into my hair, but only recently, and whilst I could go shopping at the weekend to buy clothes I didn’t have a job to pay for them. In any event, I would have looked silly in a power suit in any of the locations you were likely to find me - school, my gran’s back garden, or the cinema with my mates.
I longed for a work wardrobe. I pored over the workwear pages of the Next Directory and imagined what it would feel like to be Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle and run around in a big long coat. Granted she was a writer not a lawyer but if you squint hard when you read this you could just about say I fulfilled that ambition too. I got the coat anyway.
Then, when I was 18, I did work experience with a solicitor who wore a cream linen jacket over a beautiful summer dress every day and it was confirmed for me. This was what I wanted to do with my life. Judge me all you like; I am also a really good lawyer.
So where are we, as we come out of lockdown, on dress codes? We haven’t had a client in the office for a year and so many of those working in the office have taken to wearing jeans and trainers. I joined them for a while. When I was going into the office at unsociable hours to work around homeschooling, absolutely no part of me cared what I looked like. I also find it easier to get on and work hard when I am wearing comfortable clothes - shocking, isn’t it. But this was a dark time in my life, as you all know. Sometimes I would even wear my dog-walking trainers.
Since having children I have tried my best to seek out machine-washable clothes because arranging and paying for dry cleaning is the last thing I want to do, and I am not someone who can wear clothes over and over without them smelling. But I still wear nice clothes, and I think it is important as we come out of the pandemic.
Why do I think this? Well, I do not dress a certain way (or ask my team to) to annoy an ex-husband. I am not trying to be 'discreetly sexy'. I tried to be discreetly sexy when I went to a school disco party (remember those?) in about 2002 and I don’t think I have tried to be any kind of sexy again since. I quite like a cardigan, them very rarely being dry clean only. If you work for someone who has asked you to do/be/not wear any of the above, no names mentioned, contact me and I will see if I can get you a job working with me or any of my very-smart-but-not-sexy-and-definitely-machine-washable friends.
To clarify, I’m sure my friends are sexy. It is just that it is not on their minds as they get dressed for work, what with them not being stripograms. Keep squinting and stick with me please.
I read some advice about writing recently that said that it helps to write in the same location, wearing the same clothes or with the same scented candle nearby as the familiarity will put you in the mood for writing. I think the same applies to the day job. If I look like a lawyer, I feel like a lawyer. My legs were never going to be as thin as Ally McBeal’s, what with me eating at least four meals a day, but my heels make me feel my professional self, which, of course, is different to my other selves which all have their own shoes and outfits. The person that has to give firm legal advice on complex situations, that has to conduct appraisals, that often has to be the face of my firm outside of the office does it better when she is dressed the part. As I think Mark Twain said, the clothes make the woman.
Moreover, being smart is respectful. Just like I tidy the house for visitors (in the days when we had visitors) because it shows I have made an effort, it shows my client - and let’s not start on judges or opponents - that I want to impress them if I dress smartly. Sometimes lawyers forget that they are in business to sell a service to their clients and if I look like I’ve just dragged myself out of bed or that my clients are eating into my dog-walking time they will not be impressed.
In an ideal world, people wouldn’t judge us on what we wear. But in the actual world, unless you are a white 50-something male wearing ironed jeans and a Gant shirt, it is much harder to impress someone in jeans than in tailored clothes. It is possible, because within 10 minutes or so you can demonstrate your ability and knowledge, but for me it is better to set the tone immediately.
I deliberately haven’t said what the dress code should consist of, because we are all adults and we should know whether or not something is business attire. It will vary by person (I know some people who look smart regardless of the length of their skirts) and by situation (eg court). The point is to be presentable without your outfit distracting people from your message, to look like you can present your client’s interests confidently, that you want to be there and that you care enough to make an effort.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article