Are the ladies hemmed in?

Mary Heaney looks at a minor revolution as more women lawyers swap their skirts for trousers in the workplace

Four months ago, City firm Linklaters & Paines found itself the subject of press attention when it changed its dress code allowing females to wear trousers. Until then, it was “generally-speaking, not appropriate for women to wear trousers,” says partner Stephen Edelman.

The changes came about, he says, after a number of requests from women to review that policy. “We were updating the staff handbook and it was one of the topics that came up for discussion,” he says.

Women at the firm have welcomed the decision. One said it was taken following Clifford Chance's stand on the matter – women have worn trousers at that firm for some time.

Now, says Edelman, “on any given day, 25 per cent of women wear trousers”. These are mostly dark colours or lighter grey pin-stripes. “Nothing in the garish line,” he adds.

While the trousers battle may not be top of the agenda for many women lawyers, it's importance cannot be underestimated. Davies Arnold Cooper senior assistant Catrin Lloyd Turner admires the Linklaters stance. “It's very nice that they came out and said it,” she says. She feels it is important as trousers allow women to fit in with male lawyers.

DAC has no problem with trousers. “They expect you to look smart but not necessarily in a suit”. However, she conceded that junior solicitors could be more flamboyant than their senior counterparts.

Women tend to wear bright colours, especially in the summer, but “it's a difficult line to tread,” she says. “Working in a male-dominated field, it is better for the client if they forget you are a woman.”

Turner argues that: “Women should have the freedom to chose. Trousers are often more practical than skirts.” She feels that it is unfair that women's legs should be the focus of attention while men's legs are hidden in trousers.

However, she maintains that most firms still do not allow trousers and expect women to wear a skirt just above the knee, a blouse and a jacket. “It's rare to go to a meeting and see women in trousers.”

While the Linklaters line on dress has gone down well at the firm, female lawyers at Lovell White Durrant have not taken up the gauntlet.

Head of personnel at the firm, Anita Tovell, says that while trousers are allowed, few women wear them. “It's unusual for someone to be wearing trousers in this firm,” she says. “Most tend to wear a skirt and jacket.” Those who do wear trousers tend to be assistants.

She attributes the lack of enthusiasm for trousers to a tendency “to dress in line with the standards of the firm”. While the firm did not believe that trousers lowered the standards, nonetheless “you have to think what the client is expecting to see. Some of the older clients are a lot more conservative”.

Women at the firm tended to express themselves through colours rather than trousers, she says, adding that the firm simply asked its lawyers to dress professionally.

Other firms accept trousers more readily. Taylor Joynson Garrett liberalised its dress code three years ago. Clothes should be “smart and tailored” it says, ruling out leggings and jeans.

At Norton Rose, personnel manager Celia Staples says the firm does not have a dress code. “We leave it to people's discretion. However, they must be suitably dressed to meet our most important client at any time.”

There has been a change in the way women lawyers dress, away from the masculine pinstripes of the early 80s and the power dressers of the late 80s. Now female lawyers are wearing brighter colours with one eye on the latest fashions.

Lloyd Turner says this has happened through the arrival of shops such as Episode which pioneered the separates look. However, the vagaries of fashion do pose problems. “Last year's fashion of long skirts split to the thigh caused dilemmas,” she says. “It was all you could buy. But try wearing that to a business meeting.”

The traditional legal clothes shops have reacted to the increased interest of women lawyers in legal fashion. Ede and Ravenscroft and Thresher and Glenny set up women's departments two years ago.

Ede and Ravenscroft managing director William Keen describes it as a growing market. However, women tend to stick to traditional colours “mostly sober, generally black”.

An ex-solicitor, Madeleine Hamilton, whose business in Chancery Lane sells clothes to the profession, thinks otherwise. She says legal fashion has “been rejuvenated due to the increase of younger women coming into the profession”.

These younger solicitors are leading the way, wearing “bolder and brighter styles”. Her shop is also selling a lot of trouser suits to female lawyers.

However, although many firms are still reluctant to join the trousers bandwagon, Lloyd Turner claims the battle is being won by stealth with each trouser-wearing woman making her contribution.

Mary Heaney is a freelance journalist.