Beauty parades have become a fact of life for all firms of a significant size and standing.
While the term may be used ironically to describe the hoops that lawyers have to jump through to convince prospective clients that their legal expertise is the best on the market, in an increasingly visual society, it is clear that law firms are becoming more concerned about the image of their lawyers.
And they are not the only ones. Anecdotal evidence shows that clients are becoming just as aware of the way their lawyers look and some believe it can influence their decision when choosing a lawyer to represent them.
And it is not just when pitching for business that a lawyer's dress can matter. The same is true when the time comes for a career move.
“First impressions are paramount and image is very, very important,” says Julian Stone, manager of the in-house legal division at Garfield Robbins recruitment consultants. “The first few seconds when a lawyer walks into an interview are usually when the interviewer forms an opinion – often before anything is said.
“Image is extremely important wherever you go – whether it's firm number 496 in the top 500 or Clifford Chance, the first impression as you walk through the door is vital.”
Yvonne Smyth, senior consultant at ZMB recruitment consultants agrees: “I will always advise people to never give the firm any reason to take issue with them. I would say err on the side of conservatism, present a blank pallet so the lawyer can't dislike anything.
“Firms do notice appearance and anything that falls outside the norm is definitely a negative. Very often dress is as important an element as what you say. All the time interviewers make assumptions about you based upon what you wear.”
Positive Presence is an image consultancy targeting these fears. Owner Laurel Herman has visited several top London law firms to hold seminars on appearance. None of the firms involved wish to be mentioned but Herman's client list includes at least one magic circle firm. Less shy are Ernst & Young and Arthur Andersen which have also brought her in to offer gentle guidance.
Some of the firms Herman has worked for have asked her to advise junior solicitors who are due to be promoted to partner level.
Herman is evangelical about what she does. “I tell my clients, 'you have spent a lot of time and money investing in your education and your career. Now you need to communicate that investment.'
“When you look good, you gain confidence, increase communication and people like you more. It has been scientifically proven that a positive and attractive image [creates] positive feelings in other people,” she asserts.
But she recognises that few law firms are going to hold up their hands and admit that their lawyers are dowdy or scruffy. “In this country the word 'image' makes us wince and we don't like it because it devalues our brains and hearts. But why should there be a conflict?
“Like it or not, to everybody aside from your colleagues, your friends and those who love you, you have an image, and the good news is that you are in control of it,” she says.
But does a sharp suit help sell legal services or does it just communicate to clients that the lawyer's fees are providing enough profit to invest in designer clothes?
It is difficult to say. However, many clients admit that suits do matter. Bal Dhillon, competition law manager at Tesco, says: “We would expect lawyers to be well turned out, especially when they are meeting members of our board or representatives from other companies. It reflects badly on Tesco if they turn up scruffily dressed.”
Andrew Rajan, director of legal and business affairs at Planet 24, agrees. “When we are dealing with City firms I expect them to be in suits, I wouldn't expect them to be casual,” he says.
But both agree that first impressions are just that. Dhillon says: “When you're meeting them for the first time image comes into play. Image is probably a factor when you are choosing lawyers initially, but once you get to know people and you come to trust their judgement it becomes less so. Primarily it is quality of work which matters.”
“Image doesn't have a chance of influencing who I give the work to, because I go for the individual and it is technical and business ability which matters,” says Rajan. “Reputation, name and image all very much work together, it is an overall perception which is important.”
Not every client looks at their lawyer's suit however, or at least they claim not to. One senior figure at a major broadcasting company tells The Lawyer: “I think this is a non-question really and it's not something I want to be quoted on.”
The delicate balance is best summed up by Rajan, who concludes: “I would certainly never choose a lawyer or a law firm to represent me if they looked like a complete mess – unless they were extremely good at what they did.”
Jane Craig, family law partner at Manches
“I don't want a client to be thinking about what I look like because that is not relevant. However, I do need to look as if I understand what a client's budget is and I want to look as if I am on the same level as them,” says Craig.
While Craig loved the jacket and dress combination and said it was something that she would have bought for herself, she was a little hesitant about the make-up.
She says: “It is heavier than I would usually wear for work. This is what I would wear if I was going out in the evening. All the women partners at Manches wear lipstick and maybe I need to rethink my make-up.
“I always make sure that I have got make-up on to attend a client meeting.”
Herman thought that if Craig carried on applying the heavier make-up both she and her colleagues would soon accept it, but the initial change would be a surprise.
“I look at her and think that she looks like a smart professional, rather than thinking she is heavily made-up. Jane has a lot of confidence and is used to dressing well.
“I never like to tell people to do anything as I don't like to have conflict but I think everybody can be a little more open to someone else's perspective.
“I think she already has good style so it was not a question of a changing everything.”
Craig wears an Annaliso Ferro dress and jacket (£485) and her own shoes.
One week on, of all The Lawyer's guinea pigs, she is the one who has taken the makeover most to heart. “I am trying to carry it on,” she says. “I'm trying to emulate her as best I can, but I won't say I'm as good at doing my make-up as she was.
“I tried to look reasonably smart before, but it made me think a lot more about what I'm trying to achieve. It focused my mind on how important the overall picture is. We don't want clients to be more concerned with what we look like than the advice we are giving, but we want to look smart and approachable.”
Paul Woolf, media law partner at Manches
“When I had my own practice, Woolf Seddon, I used to wear what I liked, shorts or whatever, until we got a bit bigger, then the other partner had a word and said that we didn't want a senior partner who looked like he was going to a barbecue.
“Since joining Manches I wear suits every day because that's the firm's policy. I am one of the few partners there who will wear a coloured
shirt – everyone else wears white. My clients will often wear jeans and a t-shirt.
Herman was not impressed with the outfit Woolf wore to go shopping for the makeover clothes with her.
“He was wearing a light grey suit with a jazzy tie and lilac shirt – he looked like an old man. Now he looks like the sort of man I would be proud to be seen with.
“I chose him a jacket and trousers rather than a suit because the jacket fitted him better and it proves that the combination can be as smart as a suit.”
Herman chose Woolf a Louis Feraud jacket (£325), Selfridges own brand trousers (£69.95) and belt (£25), Paul Smith tie (£50) and Saville Row shirt (£36). Woolf's glasses came from Roger Pope and Partners (frames £130), and he was most impressed by them. “The man who helped me choose them said that with my current glasses you looked at them rather than at my face.” About the outfit Woolf says: “Although I normally wear suits, wearing a jacket and trousers would not be a problem.”
Woolf's 15-year-old daughter Harriet attended the shoot and was scathing about his choice of eyewear. “He and his girlfriend both wear the same glasses and they look like a pair of idiots,” she says.
One week on, Woolf remains convinced that Herman has a point. “The idea of it is unarguable, these things do make a difference,” he says. “It didn't change my life but I did enjoy it. I've had differing viewpoints on my haircut. My fiance wasn't too hot on it, and some of my partners thought I had been at it with a lawn mower, but others thought it was an improvement.”
Jonathan Moffett, barrister at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square
“Barristers at my chambers seem to mark out their individuality with different coloured socks,” Moffett says.
“I'm not a great spender of time or money on clothes – I would not pay more that £150 on a suit, I just walk into M&S or Next. I would go into chambers in the summer in a pair of Chinos and on Fridays I go in jeans.
“But for court I have to have a three piece or high double breasted suit. But I don't think professionally an interest in clothes is important, because solicitors are my clients and I don't think they are particularly impressed by my suits.”
Moffett was very impressed by his Oswald Boateng suit although the £895 price tag dissuaded him from rushing out to buy one. He also wore a Balmain shirt (£35), a Kenzo tie (£55) and his own shoes.
While he liked the slightly spiky haircut he was given, he was unsure if he would get away with it in court.
Herman too was unhappy with the results. “I don't know why the hairdresser did it like that,” she says.
As far as the clothes go, Herman admits that the change with Moffett was not as drastic as with some of the others.
“There was not a lot I could do with him apart from dress him. As long as a young man understands the fit of a suit then he is okay. But Jonathan had a difficult body shape and that suit was the only one in Selfridges that fitted him properly.”
Moffett has mixed views about the need for a makeover. “It's much more about how you are performing, dress is a secondary consideration.”
A week later, however, Moffett admits that the process has had an effect. “Perhaps when I next go shopping for a suit I will bear it in mind. It has given me an idea of what to look for and how important the fit is.”
Frances Kelly, trainee solicitor in the family, law department at Cumberland Ellis Peirs
Kelly started as a personal assistant in the firm but has spent the last four years retraining. So now she has to change her image from being a secretary to that of a lawyer. “I am used to a support role in the background, so I have got to get used to being my own person in my own right,” she says.
By her own admission, Kelly is used to hiding behind her hair, but the new cut brought it all off her face. A jade green suit (by Renzo £425) was bright enough to push her into the front line.
The make-up in particular was a revelation to Kelly, who arrived wearing pale lilac eye shadow. “Whenever I have put on brown eye shadow before I have looked like someone has punched me, but this colour emphasises my blue eyes.
“I would never have taken this off the hanger as I would have thought the colour was too bold. It's the sort of thing that I would have thought would look good on other people but not me.
“I certainly would not have worn it as a secretary because I would have felt too high-powered and as a secretary you mix with the other secretaries and have to fit in.”
Herman was very keen for Kelly to wear her skirts slightly shorter. She was wearing a mid-calf length skirt, but Herman believes a skirt worn slightly above the knee is more flattering and looks more professional.
“Frances is very attractive but she was not making the most of herself, although she was very open to ideas. With her new job she seems to have found herself and was willing to allow a complete change.”