Who's That Hobo Over There . . . I Mean, Lawyer?


Many years ago I interned for a brilliant judge in Detroit's criminal court system. I remember one female attorney who appeared there regularly. She was very pretty, earnest, and seemingly competent. She’d regularly wear tank tops or very tight pullovers, tight slacks, and casual jackets that fell just above her hips. I must admit that I caught myself looking at her every so often, but I'd never have retained her to represent me. She dressed like an expensive prostitute.

I give CLE seminars from time to time. My audiences usually consist of young attorneys. Often they'll gripe about finding a job, or finding a job they'd enjoy more than their current one. They seem like serious attorneys, anxious to give themselves every advantage. I'm always impressed with their intelligence when I speak to them. But I'd hesitate to hire any of them. Why? Because most of them dress like tramps and street bums; all they lack is the plastic grocery bag filled with sour macaroni salad and stale bread.

Dressing so badly is pretty thoughtless. Why? - Because I might be looking for another attorney to work in my office; or another attorney-lecturer might. And I'll size these attorneys up based on how they're dressed. People shouldn't judge you? They do. I've told them this, and they say, "well, at any job interview, I always dress well." But that's what's expected. Even murderers dress well when they're in court.

Even if you're an experienced attorney, how you dress tells the world all about you. Are you careful, or sloppy? Are you neat and attentive, or careless? . . . respectful of yourself and your profession, or completely indifferent, discouraged, and exhausted?

A Standard Exists - And You Know It

This isn't even my opinion. Even scoffers that are indifferent to their clothes make these judgments every hour. Look at two photographs: one of a woman in a dark business suit, skirt or slacks, with conservative (small!) jewelry; and another of the woman I described above. Which would you choose to represent your mother in a deportation hearing, or before a federal appellate court? (Not which one would you drool over, which would you trust with an important representation?)

Or let's take photographs of two men: Attorney A is balding, has a big nose, and a bit of a potbelly, B is tall, handsome, and with an athlete's build. Attorney A wears a perfectly fitting dark suit, white shirt, solid tie, and black wingtip shoes. Attorney B wears a rumpled brown suit that's too small, a purple shirt, and no tie. Which one would you hire to represent you?

Here's another - two photographs of the same man; in one he wears a green suit, dark blue shirt, orange and green tie; in the second he wears a dark suit, white shirt, plain rep tie. Both suits fit fine. Picture those colors. Now, which one would you hire to represent you?

Sorry, one more example: you have a doctor's appointment, a specialist you haven't seen before. After the long wait, you're ushered in to see the doctor. The nurse takes your blood pressure, then leaves. In five minutes the doctor comes in wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans. Writing on the t-shirt reads: "Make Love. Doctors Operate Better." What's just happened to your confidence in that doctor? (This last example is a close parallel to immigration clients - they're the most helpless.)

Many lawyers, young lawyers especially, don't like acknowledging these truths; and many may even ignore their own judgments about the above examples. That's a dangerous attitude. The general population may choose to resemble tramps, but don't you be influenced by it. Popular opinion isn't the best judge of what's right. Excepting that appellate lawyers don't wear morning coats any longer in Federal Appellate Courts, the rules for proper dress among attorneys haven't changed much in about 100 years. Rewrite the rules for yourself and you're a fool. Your practice and reputation will suffer.

Fundamentals Of Dressing Properly - Fit, Color, Pattern


The best law firms insist on the following: dark suits, white shirts for the men; plain dresses for the women, no bright colors, and no slacks. Of course female attorneys wear suits as well, but nothing gaudy. One look at attorneys from firms like that and you know that they're the best in the profession.

That's not an absolute truth, but it's a wonderful rule of thumb because you'll never go wrong with it. You don't always need to wear a dark suit, but you should always wear a white shirt; they just look better. If you wear a patterned jacket (never patterned pants!), the pattern should be subdued and "quiet;" the same holds true for neckties. If in doubt, wear solid neckties. If you practice outside a major metropolitan area, you can wear sport coats and even khakis - but always wear a tie, and always a white shirt. Women needn't always wear suits either, but always should wear conservative dresses, or professional looking blouses, slacks (or skirts), and jackets; no bright colors, no gaudy jewelry.

I have a solo practice in Rochester, NY. I wear sport coats very often, but always with a tie and always with a white shirt. Even going to the office without seeing clients I dress that way. When I meet clients I wear a dark coat or suit. If I go into my downtown office on a Saturday just to work on a petition or a brief, I still wear a tie. Sometimes I might get racy and wear a light blue dress shirt.

Here's another rule of thumb: dark gray, gray, black, and navy blue; never green, and never brown - especially with Jewish clients.


There's an alarming trend in the fit of dress clothes today: everything looks too tight. They call the style "slim fit." Young newscasters and weathermen wear this sort of stuff on local TV, and alarmingly too many lawyers also wear it. Popular women's clothing today also fits much too tight and in far too revealing a manner - for professional dress. For a brothel, it's fine.

So here's the rule: don't wear clothing that's cut that way. Wear suits, jackets, shirts, and pants or slacks that are "classically" cut. The best items in the Brooks Brothers catalog are classically tailored. That's how you should look. If you're not sure, find yourself a good tailor and have him fit you. Don't guess. If you're not sure, your clothes probably don't fit properly. A jacket that's too short or too long, or pants with no break, or a used-car-salesman necktie; or a skirt that appears ready to split its seams, will cost you plenty. Everyone looks aghast at your clothes when they don't fit well; but when they fit well, everyone notices you.

Buy this book and memorize it: Molloy's Dress For Success (Warner Books). There's an edition for women as well as men.

Suppose a senior partner bumps into you in the hallway. What would his impression be, just based on your appearance? It should be, obviously, that here is one of the best attorneys in this firm (whether partner, associate, or junior associate). What about a client walking into your office for the first time? Do you want their impression to be that you’re a serious, proud, and competent professional; or that you're the manager of a Dollar Store?

So dress like the best lawyers.

Casual Fridays And "Jeans Days"

I never wear a shirt without a collar out of the house. The most casual thing I'll wear is a golf shirt. And I hesitate to wear jeans in public also. Being an attorney is a responsibility to uphold, isn't it? Remember the doctor example earlier? Suppose you saw your doctor even casually at the dry cleaners when he was dressed like that; what would you think?

So, unless you're a senior partner, and especially if you're an associate, or not yet a partner, don't ever - ever - dress casually in a law office. Even if you work for an immigration clinic and you're interviewing farm workers in a remote locale, dress properly: jacket, white shirt, tie; conservative suits or dresses for the women, no bright colors, nothing garish. What if the governor and his chief counsel should helicopter in?

I know, I know: "everybody dresses down on casual Friday." Fine. But don't you do it. What if all the senior associates are in golf shirts and jeans, and you're wearing a jacket and tie. What's the senior partner's unspoken and perhaps unconscious impression when he sees you? Simply this: that here stands one of the best attorneys in the firm, perhaps more serious and thorough than the senior associates. Wouldn't you want the senior partner to think that? (Besides, if you respect the legal profession and your privilege in being a part of it, and if you zealously guard your reputation, you should want to do this anyway.)

Why gamble? Why take a chance?

Accessories - Does That Wristwatch Go Around Your Calf?

The best rule of thumb for accessories is "small and tasteful," not "big and gaudy." The flashiest accessory you wear should be your law school class ring.

Women's jewelry should be understated and refined: narrow gold necklaces, small earrings, and simple bangles or bracelets. Men shouldn't wear jewelry in my opinion. And don't overdo your wristwatch please - a plain $30 Timex is better than a dazzling Rolex; whisper, don't shout. If you wear sleeve buttons (cuff links), they should be plain and tasteful, never with any writing or pictures on them.

Belts should be made of quality leather and be conservative. Any buckle should be small and plain (would you trust a lawyer with a Nascar belt buckle the size of your fist?). Suspenders are fine, although I've heard it said they're unattractive. But wear plain suspenders, not too wide, and never, ever wear patterned suspenders that match a necktie. Larry King did that and looked like a clown minus the makeup.

I've always thought men looked dressier with hats on, although you can disregard this. If you do wear a hat, remember the words "tasteful" and "understated." You don't want to look like zoot-suited 1940's jazz musician, or a New Orleans pimp.

Have a good-looking leather briefcase, black or dark brown. There are lots of nice looking functional leather briefcases that don't cost a fortune. Don't carry a nylon or ripcord or any fabric briefcase; they look cheap and unrefined. And don't have a briefcase in weathered or light brown or gray leather. It doesn't look professional, it looks terrible. And speaking of looking terrible, I don't need to tell you to never, ever, under any circumstances wear a backpack. Do I... Dude?

Miscellaneous: (1) Wear black shoes, make sure the shoes always match your belt, and never wear brown shoes with anything but tan trousers (the worst? - brown shoes with light gray pants. Ugh!); (2) don't wear patterned shirts; (3) never wear a prominently patterned tie with a patterned jacket, it looks terrible; (4) neckties, especially solid neckties, should have the look and feel of quality fabric - they shouldn't look iridescent, as though you're wearing a radioactive necktie; and (5) if you're large or portly, wear darker colors because you'll look better in them (nothing wrong with being large - Raymond Burr's Perry Mason certainly was).


Clothing manufacturers, retailers, and fashion moguls should be ignored. The agenda for these folks is to sell clothing year after year, so they keep changing the styles. The fashions change from simply "odd" to "utterly ridiculous." Ignore popular fashion. Popular fashion does nothing for your career.

People shouldn't judge you? They do. Clothes don't make that big a difference? Clothes make an enormous difference. With one look, everyone should know all about you. If you dress like a tramp, you'll never get a chance to tell them.

"Trust" is why you should take these great pains to dress properly. If you look trustworthy, clients more easily trust you. If you dress as though you're consummately serious and professional, you'll likely be promoted over someone who doesn't dress that way. And far too often, lawyers have terrible reputations, especially immigration lawyers (usually deserved). If you're ethical and competent, why dress as though you're a ham and egg lawyer who shouldn't be trusted? Rather, people should look at you and immediately think, "Ah. There's a real lawyer. I'm in good hands."

Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Anthony Guidice practices Immigration Law exclusively in Rochester, NY.