The Style Counsel

Breech of Duty: On Pants and the Dignity of Lawyerly Labor

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 this series on courtroom style.
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In the common practice of dressing for work, some lawyers just don’t take adequate care, arguably breaching a fundamental duty they have towards their dress and appearance. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur provides that the elements of duty of care and breach can be inferred from the very nature of the accident.1 Let’s consider this in the context of pants.

Early in my career, I was on an overseas due diligence assignment outside of Paris. The target was a French concern and the guy running our team was a capable and highly dedicated senior associate—let’s call him Guy. Now, doing due diligence, even in France, is a grueling and uncomfortable process. Even with your jacket off and tie loosened, it can be agonizing to be in suit trousers while rifling through heavy Redwelds with a sizzling laptop on your knees summarizing legal documents…for days.

Having gone through this white-collar boot camp, Guy had developed what he proudly named his “diligence slacks.” These were basically those ventilated rain pants you’d wear for golf in khaki or navy or black (he had several pairs) made out of some dry fit/climacool material. Efficient and seemingly inoffensive when paired with a proper dress shirt, jacket, and tie (the latter of which would both come off quickly). Guy had worn his “diligence slacks” on high-pressured assignments in the Dulles Tech Corridor, late-night drafting sessions in Menlo Park, and even at the printers in New York. He truly (I’d say even sweetly) thought his resourceful comfort made him inherently more efficient. “And it’s really hard to notice these are actually golf pants!” Guy would brightly offer. Fore!

When the stately and impeccably dressed chief legal officer of our client—bespoke Dior suit, bright Hermès tie, Breitling just peeking out of his perfectly crisp cuff—came by one morning for an impromptu report and caught a glimpse of his lead lawyer’s getup, he quite perceptibly uttered a soft but potent “no”—holding the “o” for an inordinate amount of time.  The poor older man actually became flustered, asked a few questions of some of the properly attired junior lawyers, and walked confusedly out of the room muttering to himself gently in French. As comfortable as Guy’s pants may have been, and as competent a job he may have done, he was very much undone by his negligent fashion choice.

The same lawyer charges the same rate for the hour spent doing due diligence for a client from 2:00am-3:00am as he does appearing before the United States Supreme Court.2 His client has a right to demand he look like a lawyer in both instances and, in particular, that proper seasonal suit trousers (pleats and cuffs optional but always, in my opinion, together)—that’s your duty of care. Sweat pants, track pants, and golf gear are a breach of that duty. Res ipsa loquitur.

Ignorantia juris non excusat.3

1. Although modern formulations differ by jurisdiction, the common law originally stated that the accident must satisfy the following conditions: (i) it ordinarily would not occur without someone’s negligence; (ii) it in this instance probably did not occur without someone’s negligence; (iii) it was caused by an instrumentality that was under the exclusive control of the defendant; and (iv) it was not caused in any way by the plaintiff (i.e., no contributory negligence). Upon a proof of res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff need only establish the remaining two elements of negligence—namely, that the plaintiff suffered damages, of which the accident was the legal cause.

2. If there were such a lawyer commissioned with two such dissimilar tasks.

3. 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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