Friday, April 30, 2010

Dressed for success - the London look- Legalweek

Dressed for success - the London look- Legalweek

If you want to get on in your career, it's all about looking the part. Friederike Heine finds that first impressions count

In today's stressful and competitive business world, taking the time to review your wardrobe and overall executive presence can be a sound investment. Like it or not, your clothes speak for you - while a stylish blazer and skirt combo can say 'successful, confident and polished', a crinkled, ill-fitting suit can suggest all the wrong things about your attitude.

In any work setting that does not require a formal uniform, we make choices every day about how we dress. And it is because of this element of choice that a lawyer's business attire can reveal a lot about his or her confidence, personality and aspirations within the firm.

"Clothes can offer a glimpse into how we view ourselves as well as how we see others viewing us," says Olswang partner Eleni Skordaki. "Not all of these choices are conscious, but they do indicate how we make sense of our professional world and our place in it."

So can stepping up your style game really enhance your career chances? "Definitely," says SJ Berwin partner Bryan Pickup. "Appearance does affect promotion prospects - dress and act like a senior associate or partner and you are more likely to become one."

In response to a dilemma about whether make-up helps you succeed, an anonymous user, posting on legalweek.com's Career Clinic, couldn't agree more: "Throughout my time in private practice I have seen plenty of people promoted on the basis that they are easy on the eye," he says. "I've also seen it save less-able people caught up in redundancy processes. It shouldn't be the case - but it undoubtedly is."

Although career progression in the legal industry is not based solely on looks, entering it in the first place may be highly dependent on your appearance. An interviewer at a law firm will size you up within seconds of meeting you and, at least initially, will not be judging you on your skills as a lawyer.

SJ Berwin partner Hilary O'Connor remembers one particular incident during an interview with a potential trainee. "I recall shaking hands with a candidate for a training contract and clutching a handful of bangles, which she then jangled throughout the interview," she says. "Not a brilliant start."

Although this applicant's flashy attire may have done her a disservice, self-expression and glimpses of one's temperament can be a good thing, says Olswang's Skordaki. "My personal dress code is simple - it is about dressing, not dressing up into something I am not," she says. "Self-expression and showing one's temperament in the form of style are definitely positives when harnessed to enhance communication."

Most partners agree that it is just as important for men to dress smart as it is for their female counterparts. "Although the working wardrobe has become ubiquitous, there are countless different dress codes - for example, that women should avoid wearing cropped tops in summer, and that men should avoid comedy ties at all times," says SJ Berwin's O'Connor. "However, the majority of working adults have a good idea as to what constitutes smart business dress."

But according to Katherine Vogele Griffin, who writes a blog for professional women on how to dress in the workplace, this is not the case - countless female lawyers seek out blogs such as corporette.com for tips on how to dress. The self-proclaimed 'fashion and lifestyle blog for overachieving chicks' receives approximately 850,000 page views a month.

"I always thought the blog would be needed by any woman working in a professional and conservative office, whether lawyers or bankers or consultants," says Vogele Griffin, who only recently revealed her true identity. "But there are mostly lawyers among my readers, which indicates that women do struggle to adapt their style to Biglaw culture."

Many female lawyers find it difficult to determine what is suitable for the workplace because where men can stick to a classic suit and tie combination, there are no equivalent norms for women, says Norton Rose partner Caroline May.

"For men, a professional look is easier to achieve as there is a standard male uniform and a sort of unwritten rule about what sort of suits and ties are acceptable," she says. "For women, there are no equivalent norms, so some opt for the dark suit and blouse option, whereas some go for more flamboyant styles. Generally, it is a matter of confidence and perhaps seniority."

Practices like dress-down Fridays - which some law firms support - have widened the significance of exhibiting a 'non-work' personality. According to May, however, experiments with casual Fridays in the legal industry have shown that they are not particularly popular with staff and, more importantly, with clients. "Partners may be called into meetings at short notice, so there is a risk of being caught in dress down inappropriately," she says. "For both sexes, looking neat and tidy is the best option and something that clients feel comforted by in their advisers."

Despite the option to dress down on Fridays, Denton Wilde Sapte dispute resolution head Elizabeth Tout wouldn't entertain the idea of casual attire in the workplace. "Dressing down in the office would make me feel uncomfortable," she says. "Being well-dressed makes me feel professional, and it is important to retain an air of professionalism in the workplace."

At junior levels, appearance is especially important, as it signifies an understanding of the rules of the game and a desire to fit in. However, all this can change once you have progressed up the career ladder. "Once you have become completely indispensable then maybe your dress code is not that important," says O'Connor. "At senior levels women are still very much a minority, so there are less rules applied," adds Norton Rose's May.

The idea that career progression in law firms is based more on looks than on meritocratic reward is unlikely, says Pickup - you have to have the talent to back it up. "You can't turn a fashion model into a good lawyer if they haven't got the ability," he says. "But you can always get a talented but scruffy lawyer to improve their appearance."

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