New Zealand Law Society - Lawyers' attire: Is being trendy still stylish?

Lawyers' attire: Is being trendy still stylish?

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By Craig Stephen

Back in March 2017, LawTalk published an article entitled “Dressing for Success”, in which various interviewees espoused their views on dressing well for interviews and furthering a legal career.

But do lawyers still dress extremely smartly or has there been a general slackening in attire, a case of ‘dress down Friday’ being extended to the rest of the week?

We asked a few people in the profession for their thoughts on modern day styles, and whether it matters to clients and fellow legal professionals.

Uncertainty about what to expect

Richard Fletcher, of Woods Fletcher in Wellington and a hat aficionado – even travelling to Ecuador to acquire some Panama hats – believes lawyers’ attire has changed over the past decade or so.

Richard Fletcher
Richard Fletcher, of Woods Fletcher in Wellington and a hat aficionado

“When I initially practised in the 90s, the court lawyers had a particular standard and the other male lawyers would have a jacket and tie. Nowadays they may lose the tie. What I say to my students is that it’s partly about respect for your clients and your colleagues. A question I ask is ‘how would you dress if you were dealing with someone and you wanted them to respect you?’ It’s partly uniform and it’s partly about presenting yourself well.

“What I do find quite sad is that someone said to me ‘I object to wearing a tie’. Well, if you’re going to be a lawyer you’re going to have to wear a tie in court, that’s just one of the rules.

“I teach at the College of Law and I find that students are unsure as to what standard of dress might apply when they join the profession,” he says.

“For doing assessments, for example, the College of Law says business attire; but what is business attire? I think it is court attire. I like to think you’d wear a tie and a suit for men, and women equivalent dress as well. So, that’s the standard but I’m not going to die in a ditch over it because some people literally don’t have those items.”

Asked if ‘dress-down Friday’ is extending to the rest of the week, Mr Fletcher says it is and he is unsure of whether “it is a terribly good thing”.

“If I’m dealing with clients, even on a Friday, I’ll wear a jacket and tie, and I enjoy wearing ties.

“We do need to think about how we present ourselves to our clients and to the world, it’s part of who we are. People expect a certain standard. And it inspires a lot of confidence.”

‘Less rules and codes’

“For lawyers who regularly appear in court it seems that everyone has court appropriate attire on, and depending on your area of work, ready to go to court in case clients are arrested,” says a keen fashion observer on Shortland Street who wanted to remain anonymous.

“Choice of attire often depends on the lawyer’s practice area, the clients’ business or organisation type, in-house versus law firm/practice, cultural preferences, religious views, age/stage of career, time of year, personal preference, and there also appears to be some regional differences,” she says.

“Women lawyers overall appear to dress less corporately than they used to but suits and suit/formal jackets are often worn. Trouser suits are viewed as fashionable or sartorially savvy right now, but so is more relaxed clothing, including more nostalgic vintage trends with a modern edge, sometimes extroverted, less conforming – the opposite of corporate dress.

“And young male lawyers often wear very modern looking suits and dress very formally.

“There is a much wider range of attire being worn generally and it seems there are less rules and codes. From very casual to quite formal attire across all age groups.”

Relaxation of standards yes – and for the better

Janet Copeland, Law Society Te Kāhui Ture Southland branch President and Managing Partner at Ashcroft Copeland Law in Invercargill, says there have been changes but that simply brings the profession in line with societal changes and expectations.

We're seeing a widespread casual low developing across the legal profession on Friday, looking to be settling in...

“I think attire has, in some quarters, become more casual but whether this undermines the profession in the eyes of clients is moot. In many respects we have, through our personal presentation, given the impression of being aloof, unapproachable, unrelatable and unaffordable.

“We have also given the impression of being so removed that we struggle to understand people’s businesses, issues or concerns. A more casual approach to dress certainly goes some way to addressing these perceived barriers.

“Against this context we must, however, balance the need for respectability and professionalism. A casual or sloppy approach is inconsistent with our professional obligations and standing, and so my view is that a relaxing of professional presentation standards must be measured and well considered.”

For Richard Fletcher, while attire is important, self-confidence is also crucial.

“If you’re confident in yourself it probably doesn’t matter, particularly for younger people it’s nice to have a comfort zone which gives you a bit more confidence in what you are doing. But you also want to dress comfortably while looking respectful.”

What the law firms expect

The large law firms usually provide guidance on their view of what is and isn’t appropriate from the day lawyers start.

The HR Director at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, Christine Brotherton, notes that keeping in line with the dress code policies of many of its clients, the firm has adapted its dress policy to “dress for your professional day”.

“We have asked our people to consider the meetings and interactions they have each day and to dress accordingly for those. Attendance and court and formal meetings/external meetings require corporate business attire, while internal meetings tend to be smart or business casual.”

And the People Director for Dentons Kensington Swan in Wellington, Emma Gibbins, says the firm is currently consulting with staff on a new ‘dress for your day’ policy.

She says the new policy proposes moving from the current approach of traditional ‘business dress’ to include ‘business casual’.

Canterbury firm Saunders Robinson Brown doesn’t officially have casual Fridays, but says the majority of employees dress as they would on any other day of the week.

“However, some may dress a bit more relaxed – for example, men may wear chinos rather than suit pants. Our dress code is about our employees being able to express themselves and using their own judgement for their client base – both internal and external.”


So surely court appearance hasn’t changed?

A New Zealand Law Society Te Kāhui Ture O Aotearoa guide to appearing court states that the following attire should be worn:

In the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court that should be

  • a dark (black, blue or dark grey) suit or skirt;
  • white shirt or blouse;
  • a tie for men;
  • black shoes;
  • dark socks or neutral/dark coloured pantyhose/stockings; and
  • a gown.

In the District Court, the guideline notes that “a more individual style of dress is acceptable in the District Courts, but the way you dress should still show respect for the court.”

Branch President for Waikato-Bay of Plenty, Terry Singh, has observed those standards being maintained.

“If anything, the male lawyers now are more sharply dressed than 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, which could be due to the accessibility of tailored suits. There would be less difference in the dress standards between male and female lawyers. There is definitely a trend away from a pure black suit for men. Blues and greys are very popular.”

Outside of court, Mr Singh sees some lawyers in firms opting for no tie or no tie/no jacket.

“This goes both ways. It probably breaks down a barrier for some people to be able to talk more freely with their lawyer and see them as someone advising them not instructing them. For others, the formality gives them the air of authority that gives the client confidence in the advice.”

Richard Fletcher suspects there has been a loosening in standards in court, however.

“I have heard that some standards of dress have slipped a little in the District Court but I’m not sure why that is.

“But you are in a place that is formal and your attire also helps your client a lot, in how they deal with the process – they’ll take it more seriously, I think.”

Cost-effective smart dressing

Mr Fletcher, who on the day of our interview was looking very dapper in a three-piece suit bought for $30 from an op shop, notes that there are bargains for those who look around.

“I’ve picked up a couple of nice shirts with the wrapping on in op shops. People often put things in op shops that they’ve bought but immediately found they don’t fit, don’t suit them or wear for a season before offloading them.”

Cost may dictate a practitioner’s attire. One lawyer noted that a corporate style wardrobe can be expensive to purchase and maintain and may not anyway suit the legal environment a person works in.

And Mr Fletcher also notes you shouldn’t over-dress. “You don’t want to dress better than your boss.”

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