Although this post is not completely on topic for this blog, I feel compelled to point out this article from the ABA Journal, taken from the New York Lawyer magazine. Tracey Batt, a former Big Law associate, discusses her sentencing and rehabilitation for “fashion failures” while at Weil, Gotschal & Manges in New York. Apparently, the firm was displeased with her clothing choices – black leather ankle boots and trench and pant suits – and hired a fashion consultant / personal shopper to take her for a full makeover.
The trouble lay in the switch to business casual, a move that apparently frightened the powers-that-be at the firm enough to publish a multi-page, full color brochure with myriad, arcane rules. Such as, during warmer month, women could wear shoes with either open toes or open heels, but not both.
Tracey, who readily admits that she has always danced to the beat of a different drummer (read: her own), attempted to adapt the rules to her personal style. It did not work. Confronted by her favorite partner and an administrative manager, Tracey was summarily put through pre-trial, trial and sentencing without being read her Miranda rights or exercising her right to counsel. She was then treated to the mortifying experience of being paired with the fashion consultant for a clothing and make-up intervention.
All’s well that ends well, though. Tracey is now the executive director of New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts Inc. and an adjunct professor at Rutgers School of Law-Camden – positions that are much better suited to expressions of her personal taste.
Her story makes me think back on my own experience in a large law firm. I remember being on the cutting edge of the switch in women’s attire from skirts and dresses to pant suits. I am NOT a dress or skirt wearer and I hastened the change as quickly as I could, relying on my faithful mental earplugs to filter the comments swirling around me. My firm did not call the fashion police on me, but that does not mean that they approved of my choices. Progress, however, is as inevitable as seasonal change and by the time I left, the tiny group of two who started the pant suit craze had grown to include more than half of the women in our department.
Firms, especially large ones, institutionalize conformity much the same way that McDonald’s packages predictable food. Rightly or wrongly, firms believe that clients expect a certain presentation. Whether you, the individual associate, agree is of no moment. If you want to hoof it with the big boys and girls, you must don the proper dancing attire.
There is much in the media these days about external forces bringing pressure to bear on larger firms to abandon closely-held principles of hourly billing, practice, and firm management. Maybe some of these archaic attitudes about presentation are on their way out as well.
But not fast enough for me. Now, I wear my pajamas to work, one of the benefits of working in a flexible, at-home environment. There is no one here to tell me that I am putting off my clients. And maybe, just maybe, the client on the other end of the line has his bunny-slipper clad feet crossed on his desk.