Is there such a thing as a dress code for the modern paralegal? When I graduated from paralegal school over two decades ago, we were told to go buy a nicely tailored navy blue and black suit. We were to pair these suits with a white dress shirt, pantyhose and closed-toe dress shoes with no more than a two to three inch heel. Wow, have times changed in 25 years!
Law firms now have “casual Fridays” and “business casual” dress codes. I worked for a small law firm where every day was casual Friday. The only person in the office who wore a suit was the attorney. In contrast, I’ve also worked in an office where everyone down to the receptionist was required to wear a suit.
Regardless of the dress code for the law firm, I’m a firm believer that when you go to a paralegal interview, you should wear a suit. A suit is professional and demonstrates that you pay close attention to detail and you’re committed to your career. Some people may disagree but I prefer to err on the side of caution and overdress rather than under-dress. First impressions do matter.
Does firm size or environment matter more?
Some may believe that the size of the law firm dictates the dress code but that’s an incorrect assumption. There are large and small firms that have strict, professional dress codes and there are large and small firms that have adopted a more relaxed, business casual dress code. The dress code may have more to do with the attorneys, type, and culture of law firm than the size of the law firm.
Should we dress to fit in?
I hate to say that you should dress to fit in, but in some cases, especially when you’re new, that’s exactly what you may need to do to a certain extent. While we should be judged purely on our job performance and not our appearance, we still live in a society that considers appearance when forming an opinion.
Men have it rather easy, they wear a suit and they fit in nicely. For women, there’s a wider range from tailored pant and skirt suits to more casual dress slacks and blouses. You not only need to balance your wardrobe choices by the specific office dress code but, also by typical stereotypes for male and female office attire.
I’ve watched many men and women come and go through law firms and the ones who fit in best with the office staff were those who paid attention to the social atmosphere as well as the dress code. They didn’t over or under-dress, but simply adapted their wardrobe to the office dress code.
Do we see eye-to-eye about what to cover?
I loved the comment one of my attorneys always made when I would ask him if he minded a “casual day” when neither of the other attorneys were scheduled to be the office and no clients were scheduled to come into the office that day. He would always replay, “As long as all of the important parts are covered.” My reply, “Our idea of ‘important’ may be different.” We both laughed but my reply did have some truth to it. As social norms have changed, so have the attitudes as to what needs to be covered in a professional setting.
I’ve had my fair share of conversations with specific staff members, even with a relaxed dress code, about wearing shirts that were too low cut or skirts that were too high cut. I have also had to address situations where staff members dressed too casually. Unfortunately, it’s much easier when the law firm has a strict dress code because there isn’t much room for error. By adopting a casual dress code, you’ll always have staff members that take advantage of it or at least attempt to take advantage of it.
How should you dress for work?
I wish I had all of the answers but it simply comes down to the law firm. Each law firm will have its own dress code. When you’re hired, ask HR for a copy of the dress code. If there isn’t a written dress code, ask questions. Pay attention to how staff members are dressed when you go for your interview. Dress conservatively and professionally the first few days until you learn the dress code.
Sometimes the dress code will vary according to position. If you notice that those with more authority tend to dress more professionally, you may want to choose to imitate their dress code, especially if you want to advance in the law firm. There’s definitely something true about dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. But, you must also temper that with the people you’re working with each day.
If your co-workers believe you’re not “one of them,” it will make your job much more difficult because they won’t offer assistance or support when you need it. The modern paralegal should apply the same analytical abilities, research skills, and problem-solving skills used day-to-day to determine the proper dress code for work.
There are thousands of articles online about dress code etiquette in the law firm. The best advice – dress as you did for your interview until you learn more about the dress code for the firm. Always dress professionally regardless of the dress code. You’re a professional at work – you’re not going out with your friends. Moreover, remember to keep all of the important parts covered!
Tonya Pierce is a paralegal with over 24 years experience in several areas of the legal field (17 years as a bankruptcy paralegal and trustee paralegal).