New Zealand Law Society - Dressing for success

Dressing for success

Dressing for success

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How much difference could a sharp suit and shiny shoes make to your career? Maybe more than you think.

Jo Calder, national human resources manager at Buddle Findlay, says how a lawyer presents him or herself can impact on how a client views them. “The profession is so steeped in history, maybe for some clients if they’re paying x amounts of dollars per hour, they want to see someone suited and booted and looking the part.”

Dressing the part can not only send a message to your clients and colleagues, according to research it can also influence your behaviour and how you see yourself.

Michael Kraus, a professor at the Yale School of Management, has studied the connection between clothing and financial advantage in negotiations, conducting an experiment in 2014 in which men in suits participated in a mock real estate negotiation with men in casual clothing.

Writing about the experiment for The Conversation news website, Mr Kraus said the results suggested that wearing high-status clothes like a suit can cause people to behave more dominantly, with the suit-wearing participants gaining on average more than US$2 million in profits during the negotiations, against profits of just US$680,000 for participants who wore tracksuit trousers and jandals.

“What is clear from these findings is that simple choices about what to wear can be made thoughtfully, with an eye toward increasing success, improving job performance and earning respect in the eyes of others,” Mr Kraus wrote.

He said other research also showed that wardrobe choices impacted on behaviour, with a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2012 finding that university students who wore a lab suit while participating in an experiment showed more attention to detail on cognitive tasks compared to participants who wore a painter’s coat.

“All this research indicates that our wardrobe choices might be a way for us to strategically nudge our own behaviour in one direction or another,” Mr Kraus said.

Dress codes and standards

How you should dress will depend on where you work, as every law firm will have slightly different sartorial expectations. Take your cue from the people around you, focusing on how the senior partners dress. “It’s part of the culture fit and being smart enough to know what’s appropriate,” says Judith Eller, director at recruitment firm Legal Personnel. “You have to look at the target market you want to deliver yourself to.”

Even within a firm, dress standards may differ depending on the branch. Jo Calder says Buddle Findlay’s Christchurch office is “typically quite casual”, the Auckland office has a casual Friday but Wellington doesn’t. “The flavour or culture of each office is different.”

Buddle Findlay has a written dress code policy, but Ms Calder says it’s pretty broad, basically asking staff to make sure they are corporately groomed if they have a client interaction — which for men means a suit (with the jacket on) and for women a suit-equivalent.

Talking to people about how they present themselves is a sensitive issue, as it’s very subjective. What’s one person’s idea of conservative attire could be another person’s nightclub look. Ms Calder says most lawyers get it right and its very rare that HR or management need to step in. “We try to be diverse and inclusive and embrace people’s individuality, but certainly, if there’s the odd occasion where someone has crossed that line and we think it’s a bit borderline, then we’ll have a word, but that really doesn’t happen often, it’s the exception.”

One way around an awkward conversation with a staff member is to instigate a group discussion or workshop. “Over the years we’ve had a couple of grooming consultants come in and talk about etiquette in general, how you present yourself in different situations and even present a couple of different clothing options,” Ms Calder says.

She says lawyers need to understand the environment they’re working in and who they are dealing with and then dress appropriately. “You need to think about your audience, whether you’re in front of a judge, or a barrister or another lawyer. It’s your reputation and your brand.”

Ms Calder suggests erring on the slightly conservative side. “It’s not a racy, sexy industry.”

From a recruitment point of view, Legal Personnel’s Judith Eller says it’s better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed in a professional environment, especially when interviewing or starting a new job. “In the work environment, go formal and then get the feel and the tone of what works and fits, and then dress according to that.”

She says grooming is as important as the clothes you wear. “It’s not about fashion. I think if someone is really well groomed, your hair is neat, your clothes are ironed and matched and your shoes are shiny you don’t have to be wearing the height of fashion. It’s not necessarily about having the money for the best clothes, it’s about presenting yourself in a good way.”

Building a work wardrobe

You need to focus on a few key ‘investment’ pieces when it comes to building a work wardrobe, says Amanda Edey, store services manager at David Jones in Sydney. These pieces — your suits, blazers and shoes — should form the foundation of what she calls a capsule work wardrobe.

“That’s where you want to invest and spend your money, that’s where you want to get your longevity. Those pieces should be more classic so you can get a few seasons out of them. The pieces that you can update seasonally and spend a little less on are your shirts and your accessories,” Ms Edey says.

If you have to wear a suit every day, Ms Edey says aim to build up to two to three suits in the wardrobe, and then buy a new suit each year and rotate an old one out.

Fit and fabric are the key things to look at when buying a suit. Decent fabric means a suit will last longer and not pill, and a good tailor can alter a suit to fit you perfectly, giving a cheaper suit a more expensive look. “Having a good, trusted tailor, particularly for suits, is really important, because it can make or break a suit and will affect how you look and how you feel.”

A suit can take the stress out of deciding what to wear each day — almost like you have a work uniform. If, however, your office allows business casual you can veer into trickier territory. “I think when people have more choices, there are more risks of getting it wrong,” Ms Edey says.

She’s also a fan of tailoring more casual outfits, saying says it’s a good way to make more casual clothing look office-appropriate. “Have a good tailored pair of pants that aren’t necessarily suiting pants. They might be really nice chinos or just a really nice tailored pair of pants. Again it’s those key pieces — it might be a nice blazer or a statement jacket — that still make you look casual but keep you looking professional.”

Decision fatigue

For some people, trying to work out what is or isn’t appropriate to wear each day is simply one too many things to worry about. British art director Matilda Kahl became a viral sensation in 2015 after writing a piece for Harper’s Bazaar admitting to wearing the same thing to work every day for three years.

After arriving late to a meeting one day after stressing about what to wear, Ms Kahl decided to take the guess work out of her wardrobe, creating a signature look and buying 15 of the same white silk blouse and a few pairs of black trousers. “The simple choice of wearing a work uniform has saved me countless wasted hours thinking ‘what the hell am I going to wear today?’ And in fact, these black trousers and white blouses have become an important daily reminder that frankly, I’m in control. Today, I not only feel great about what I wear, I don’t think about what I wear,” she wrote.

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