The Style Counsel

On the Perils of Dressing Above One's Pay Grade

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 second dispatch, on why a legal professional must be mindful of his sartorial station.
Hackman and Cruise in 'The Firm,' 1993

Relativity theory in practice: Gene asserts his partner status in double-breasted, while Tom hangs back in a more muted, associate-level cut.

Following up on my first piece on relativity theory, I’d like to point out another principle that should guide your dress habits as a legal professional. The goal is to look generally sharp, exercise a degree of self-expression, and not jeopardize your career in the process. 1

Don’t dress like a partner before you are a partner.
I know, I know, this is a hard one. Many of the more expressive pieces that might be in your lawyerly wardrobe are just too showy to advisably wear before you’ve got a “P” after your name. So no suspenders with prints (or, frankly, any that are even noticeable at all); resist contrast-collar and French-cuff shirts unless you have muted cuff links (simple rope is good); and forget the bow tie. I’d even think long and hard before you wear certain suit styles like double-breasted—although if you feel your body requires it, it’s of course better to be comfortable and confident in your suits than to blindly adhere to this tenet. 2

Avoid becoming “that fashionable guy” at the firm.
I’m not saying don’t be fashionable; just don’t do it in certain obvious ways. “That fashionable guy” is the homo sacer. 3 Early in my career I had a colleague in my class in the M&A group. Tall, athletic looking, fluent in a few languages and well regarded as an associate—he dressed well but nothing stood out. As we progressed at the firm he started dating an editor at one of the seminal women’s fashion publications and promptly began wearing saddle shoes with contrasting colors at the office. This was followed by fedoras (conservative colors and fabrics to be sure, but still, fedoras) and cravats (muted colors to be sure, but still, cravats). The quality of his work was forgotten amid the sheer noise of his fashion-forward moves.

Ignorantia juris non excusat. 4

1. Please note that if you own your own firm or have a big book of business you feel comfortable with, these precepts may be of limited usefulness to you. If, on the other hand, you are an associate, counsel, a junior partner, or even senior partner with general aspirations within your firm, in addition to the client relativity rules discussed last week, you should also adhere to the employer relativity rules that follow.

2. If you are thin and on the taller side, double-breasted suits give a fuller appearance to the figure.

3. Homo sacer (Latin for “the sacred man” or “the accursed man”) is an obscure figure of Roman law. He may be banned, even killed by anyone in the populace, but he may not be sacrificed in certain religious rituals.

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.

Don’t miss Hand’s inaugural Gilt MANual dispatch, on the complex sartorial tug-of-war between lawyer and client.

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  1. Alejandro says:

    Very smart post… and very true. Sartorial wonderment is one thing but let’s remember what one dresses for: warmth, comfort and occasion. This last one is they key as it informs what’s necessary: A true gentlemen does not dress for simple vanity (i.e. to impress) but for what the occasion asks of him, and its minutia, asks of him and remember… “less is more,” and less can be bespoke Turnbull and Asser shirts- leave the fedora and cravat at home…

  2. Jessica says:

    Funny. True. Good picture too.

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