Your Office Went Business Casual? Here’s What to Wear — and What to Avoid Wearing

Question:

Our firm used to have a professional attire policy but our workplace dress code recently changed to business casual unless we’re meeting with clients or in court. I’m trying to sort out what that means for my professional wardrobe and legal career?

Answer:

As your experience attests, the legal profession has long resisted the allure of a more casual dress code. But as you have discovered first hand, a growing number of firms are moving away from formal attire to business casual policies unless employees are meeting with clients or appearing in court. However, there are still some rules to follow. Here’s a quick run-down of what business casual dress codes mean for legal professionals — and what they don’t.

Business casual for women

Women tend to have more fashion choices than men, it also means more opportunities for faux pas. There’s a delicate balance between work casual and weekend wear. Clothes that are too revealing or distracting — such as sleeveless tops, spaghetti straps, short skirts, transparent or cut-out areas, bright colors or large patterns, etc. — are not acceptable, along with shorts, t-shirts, leggings and sweats. It’s safest to stick with knits, tailored blouses and pants in traditional patterns and neutral colors. Skirts or dresses should be knee-length. Pumps with lower heels, mules, flats and loafers are acceptable in conservative colors, while sandals, platforms and peep-toe shoes are not. Jewelry should be minimal.

Business casual for men

For days behind the desk, pair a collared shirt — either a long-sleeve button-down or short-sleeve polo — with khakis or dark trousers and a belt. Add a structured, tailored jacket or solid color sweater for cooler weather. It’s okay to wear subtle patterns and brighter colors. Opt for dress shoes such as oxfords or loafers, but always with socks. Anything slouchy is out, so leave the jeans, sneakers, sandals, T-shirts, hoodies, athletic socks and sweatshirts for weekends.

Business casual advice for legal professionals

To make your wardrobe work for your career, rather than against it, both men and women should follow these simple rules:

1. Dress conservatively. Stick with solid colors or subtle patterns. Avoid large logos or images. While there’s a trend of “dress” sneakers and sandals, they are still too unconventional for most law firms.

2. Choose quality over quantity. Invest in a few well-made classic pieces to mix and match with your existing wardrobe. All you may need to buy are some structured blazers, slacks and less-formal dress shirts. Make sure your new clothes fit well: not tight but not baggy, either.

3.Keep it tidy. Whatever you wear, make sure it doesn’t have any stains, wrinkles or holes. Keep a lint roller and stain-remover wipes handy. As for your shoes, they should always be clean and polished.

Business casual in the legal profession looks very different than it does in, say, creative or tech fields. If you’re still unclear on what’s acceptable, observe what senior partners or the office manager are wearing. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.