If you live anywhere on the East Coast, you know that the weather is just darned hot these days. I had a lunch meeting today and nearly collapsed of heat stroke walking between the parking lot and the restaurant. It got me thinking about all of you and the challenge to dressing professionally for young women lawyers—especially in this hot, steamy weather.
If you read my book, Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law, you know that this is a serious subject. Too many young women professionals are compromising their dress to their desires for comfort or their desires to play up the “sexy” side. There is a difference between feminine and sexy, and I am quite sure that you know where that line gets drawn. If you passed Federal Income Tax and Secured Transactions, this should not be too difficult to figure out. In case it is not obvious, take advice from the Seventh Circuit judges at a judicial conference in 2009 where they “groused” on the inappropriateness of thigh length skirts and plunging necklines in the courtroom.
This type of dress is not appropriate in the office and sends the wrong signals. You want your colleagues and your clients to treat you like a professional, and you must dress like one and act like one. Off-color jokes are not appropriate in the office, so why would clothing that is reminiscent of nightclub attire?
The Seventh Circuit judges also commented about attire that is too casual for the courtroom. Should anyone have to be told that sweatsuits are not on the appropriate list???? Apparently so. Flipflops also are not on the list, but we still hear of summer associates showing up at Big Law in shorts and flipflops on casual Friday. Casual does not mean beach attire, and it is a really good idea to check the rule book for what casual means in your firm before experimenting. It could be a real career changer to get called to a client meeting at the last minute without backup appropriate attire. And, who wants to carry a suitcase to the office with various clothing choices to cover all odds? Not worth it. Just dress appropriately from the get-go, and you will have no problems. To paraphrase the judges of the Seventh Circuit, dress as a serious person who takes her profession seriously.
Back to the weather and its influence on your clothing choices. Yes, it may be 95% outside, but no, you are not expected to wear stockings—aka panty hose. Even First Lady Michelle Obama knows that you can be taken very seriously as a woman professional without donning pantyhose. (Here’s her confession on The View before a nationwide television audience.) And about those signals you are sending….the signal may be that you are “hot” from the high temperatures, but make sure that the signal is not that you are “hot” sexually. It might be fun, but it is highly inappropriate and you will regret it.
However, when the mercury climbs, it is a tad more complicated than that because the weather outside may be 20 degrees hotter than the inside office temperature. Layer, layer, layer is the key. The jacket or little cardigan can be ditched in the miserable subway and on the walk over sizzling concrete to the office, but it will come in handy for the supercharged AC that most law firms demand—even though cost-cutting should be on their minds these days.
And finally, what about exposed arms? Although there seems to be some debate on this, I think that sleeveless can be very professional. Again, check out the sleeveless shifts that the First Lady favors. And, if you had her arms, why not! However, at least one law firm banned sleeveless attire last summer when in the presence of clients, so beware of the dinosaurs that still roam the earth.
So, no pantyhose required, sleeveless can be professional, layer, layer, layer and apply a generous dosage of common sense. That’s what should be in your summer survival kit.