The Style Counsel

Relativity Theory in Lawyerly Dress

Attorney Douglas Hand isn't just superbly dressed—he also counts of-the-moment men's labels like Rag & Bone, 3.1 Phillip Lim, and Richard Chai among his clients. Which is why we've retained his services to bring you a new series about courtroom style. Here, the author's inaugural dispatch, on the complex sartorial tug-of-war between a legal professional and the man who pays his bills.
Photo: Everett Collection

Sartorial Sabotage: Could it be the bravado of Jimmy's three-piece that's undermining his client's case?

The old adage goes, He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. Sadly, the same can often be said for lawyers and their sense of style. All you need to do to understand this unfortunate phenomenon is spend one afternoon down at the local courthouse, where you’ll bear witness to an endless parade of ill-fitting gray suits, interrupted all too briefly by a wayward pair of oxblood Berlutis or a western tie.

Bold displays of sartorial individuality, on the other hand—while laudable in theory—must always be subjected to the context of the modern courtroom. We are, after all, lawyers, and projecting an air of dignified courtliness is vital to our ultimate effectiveness as professionals.

To truly understand the laws that should govern a counselor’s habits of dress, we need to turn away from the legal statutes—and embrace, rather, the laws of physics. The trick is to look sharp without jeopardizing one’s career or client roster; and to do that, a lawyer must thoroughly understand the principle of sartorial relativity. 1

No matter what your practice, your clients will always have varied dress codes.  There are, however, some important constants. You should always dress more formally than your clients. If you are representing a San Francisco tech start-up whose founders are Banana Republic, polo-and-chino kinds of guys, you’ve got some real leeway in terms of how casual you can go. Loomstate, Billy Reid, Steven Alan—all acceptable. And you are unlikely to go wrong even if you dress quite a bit more reservedly. Remember: ab initio 2, you are always out of harm’s way in a conservative suit. A blue pinstripe is your life raft; gray flannel, your safe zone.

Also keep in mind that these are lean times in corporate America. Thus, make sure to always dress less affluently than your client.3 A client sitting in a 58th-floor conference room admiring the richness of his or her attorney’s bespoke Canali suit and 14-karat-gold Bulgari cufflinks may be tallying how much of your hourly rate goes to cover these lavish effects.

For the contract lawyers out there, think of these two rules as a covenant with a floor and a ceiling. Stay above the floor of casual dress set by your client; but be reminded of the ceiling they set with how much wealth should advisably be displayed in front of them.

Ignorantia juris non excusat. 4

1. Next week look for “The Relativity Theory of Courtroom Dress: Dressing Relative to Your Employer.”

2. Something being the case from the start or from the instant of the act, rather than from when the court declared it so.

3. I recognize there are exceptions for those of you in criminal law, immigration, personal injury, and other fields.

4. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Douglas Hand is a New York attorney-at-law who currently represents Rag & Bone, Steven Alan, Phillip Lim, Richard Chai, and Rogan, among others. He has practiced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Milan, and is on the Advisory Board of the CFDA’s Fashion Incubator Program and Fordham Law’s Fashion Law Institute. His firm, HBA LLP, is a member of the CFDA’s Business Services Network.
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