I’m about to start a new job at a tech-focused start-up, but have only ever lived in suits – I was at a pretty traditional firm for years. Everyone at the new company is going to be in jeans. How do I display lawyerly gravitas but at the same time not come over as unapproachable?
Isabelle Meyer, legal director, Moët Hennessy Europe
Welcome to the in-house world.
Although in-house lawyers are in my opinion a huge asset to small- and medium-sized companies – and an absolute must for larger ones – employees who have never dealt with lawyers tend to be scared by the profession.
Indeed, when talking to lawyers, they may be worried to ask silly questions and sometimes not understand the answers. Furthermore, they may have the feeling that the law is here to complicate their job and prevent them from achieving their goals.
Your main challenge will be to demonstrate that you are a business partner, that you share the same goals and that your legal skills will significantly help. You will need to understand what the business is thriving to achieve and support them in delivering legally compliant solutions. This also means that you will need to translate legal jargon into common language and adapt to your audience. You should be seen as an asset, a trustworthy partner and I am convinced that the business will show you a huge amount of respect.
I do not think that you should dress differently than they do. If the dress code is informal smart casual, go for it. Wear a jacket or a blazer and a nice pair of shoes and it should work. Of course, you will have to adapt your dress code on occasions, when meeting with clients. A potential second life for your suits, I guess. Good luck.
Kathy Atkinson, legal director, Kettle Foods
It is more important to appear approachable and to show you are an integral part of the team working alongside everyone else in the business, rather than to look like a lawyer, so I would err on the side of dressing to match the rest of the business.
There can be a tendency to assume that lawyers are a bit stuffy and set themselves apart from others, so along with your attitude and approach your dress code can help to show your colleagues that there are lawyers who don’t fit this mould and who can instead be effective team members that are truly embedded in the business. Your reputation as a professional will come from your judgment and conduct over time and does not need to come from your dress sense.
It may feel strange to ditch the suits at first but you will quickly get used to it and you will probably find that there is a range of informality within the business, rather than everyone conforming to the exact same dress code, so there will be somewhere you will feel comfortable within that range.
Ray Berg, managing partner, Osborne Clarke
At Osborne Clarke we’re pretty flexible and I have been known to set the dress-down level for the firm at Saturday afternoon. I personally think the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra’s, new two-word dress code of “dress appropriately” is an excellent guide. While you are still getting the measure of your new culture I would play it safe and start off with good old smart casual.
Sally Davies, London managing partner, Mayer Brown
You do not need to wear a suit to display gravitas. What you wear is irrelevant to how you are perceived and, most importantly, respected and trusted by others. Dress smartly but casually.
React to those around you. What does the CEO wear? If he, or she, is in jeans get over it and get into your jeans. Forget about being a “lawyer” and react and adapt to your surroundings and the people in your new organisation. Think about how you would like someone to behave if you were a tech person needing in-house legal advice. Put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t you want someone friendly, down to earth, approachable, thoughtful, kind and who explained legal concepts clearly and not in a patronising way? Who cares if you are wearing a tie or not?
Don’t be a stuffed shirt, trussed up in a suit. Be yourself, dress appropriately but in your individual style. If you don’t have one, start off with the chinos/shirt combo. You won’t go wrong and I hope within a few weeks you might be wearing jeans and feeling comfortable and relaxed. What you end up wearing is irrelevant; focus on being approachable, friendly and always professional.
Kathryn Higgs, lawyer, executive coach and public speaker
First of all, big congrats on your new role! If this is your first move in-house, you are about to enter a world where you can do so much more than simply provide accurate and timely legal advice. It’s also an opportunity to say farewell to your uniform of grey suits and pink-shirt Thursdays and embrace a wardrobe which can help you communicate your own professional brand. Sure you could just whack on some denim and hope for the best. But my advice to you is to seize this opportunity – this is not just a question of clothes.
Every new job offers an opportunity to start afresh, to bring your best attributes with you. Start by thinking about what you want your brand to be. When coaching, I ask my clients to identify a list of traits they most value and aspire to demonstrate. In your ideal scenario, how would your new colleagues describe you? Whether we like it or not, people judge us on our appearance. So also ask yourself: how likely is it that colleagues will describe you in line with your brand? What can you do to influence that?
You mentioned lawyerly gravitas. The dictionary defines gravitas as dignity, seriousness and solemnity of manner. Granted this overlooks the concepts of being a trusted adviser. But think about your new workplace. These guys are tech entrepreneurs – unlikely to be especially solemn nor place much stock in formal dignity. What are your clients really looking for? I’d hazard a guess they are after a smart, commercially savvy colleague who is also fun to work with.
Denim doesn’t have to lack gravitas. You don’t have to turn up in ripped jeans and a low-slung V-neck. Look at how many successful, respected and entrepreneurial leaders dress. Plenty of them rock the jeans, shirt and blazer look, for example. My advice is dress for the job you want but be true to your personality and your brand.
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