Over the last decade, along with the other professions, the legal world has learned to appreciate the value of corporate femininity. But if you aren’t expected to look like one of the men, how to negotiate the multi-choice minefield of female fashion? DEIRDRE MCQUILLAN on how lawyers Look the Business…
The clothes they wear, the shoes they choose, the bags they tote, their grooming and deportment, these are all part of the overall sense of trust and competence that well-appointed solicitors are expected to present – the women that is. Once, when corporate boardrooms were filled with men, if you were a woman, it was enough to be present at the table – wearing a black or grey suit, shoulder pads and sensible shoes. To make any headway, to carve out a future, be taken seriously, it was best to blend in. While this was frustrating to those women who would have liked to express themselves a little bit more, it did mean that most of the pressure to perform was about work – not about how you looked. Now, the challenges of presentation are as daunting as the job itself. Looking the business is an important aspect of any lawyer’s success. A grooming mistake may undermine how seriously you will be taken. How you dress will signify respect – or lack of it – for your role and your client. As economist and founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation says: “Appearance is extraordinarily powerful because it’s the first filter.” Qualifications, gravitas, smarts and communication skills are more important but in this climate of snap judgments, what if it’s your wardrobe that’s letting you down?
It’s generally understood that the best put-together professional women tend to tread a middle-ground between business boring and fashion forward. With so many women at the very top level in Irish law firms now, there is more opportunity to demonstrate to young female lawyers what will and won’t cut the mustard. An aura of competence will not include the disempowering wobble of too-high heels, flesh that isn’t held in check or jewellery that distracts. Dress codes have not evaporated, but there are ways to be stealthily stylish. Three women in the Irish legal profession give us some insights on dressing for work now.
WHO: Katie Da Gama
WHAT: Senior Partner, DAC Beachcroft and member of its global board
Da Gama (a descendant of the famous explorer Vasco da Gama) qualified as a barrister in the UK in 1999 and moved to Ireland with her Irish accountant husband in 2004. She is a professional indemnity lawyer.
“Research shows that in companies where there is a gender balance at senior leadership level, there is an improvement in performance. A team of men and women work better together than a single-sex team. They mix ideas that affect profitability. It is something that we always strive for.
“I think things are beginning to change – women in high-profile professions are dressing in a more feminine way. The days of wearing power suits to make it in a man’s world are gone. This change has brought an element of colour to workwear. Professional women tend to have key pieces and suits in dark grey or black, but they’re not afraid to wear pink
“Research shows that in companies where there is a gender balance at senior leadership level, there is an improvement in performance. A team of men and women work better together than a single-sex team.”
shirts, red shoes or a colourful scarf. When I am not meeting clients I might come to work wearing a coloured dress, red or orange, but not to court because I would stand out too much. When I am with a client in court or making a presentation to colleagues, I opt for a well-cut suit in a dark shade accented with colour. I tend to wear dresses rather than trouser suits because they suit my shape and I feel more comfortable in them.
“I like shopping at LK Bennett and Hobbs. When travelling, it’s a good idea to have pieces that work together – a dress, jacket and matching trousers or skirt. I spend far more on work clothes than weekend wear and love shopping.
“I don’t think there is any dumbing down of femininity in the legal profession – and younger women are more confident because there are more of us in senior positions wearing feminine clothes.”
WHO: Jackie Buckley
WHAT: Head of Property and Private Client department at Hayes Solicitors
Buckley qualified as a solicitor in 1999, having started as a trainee at Hayes in 1990 and has been working there since 2000, in property transactions. She is married with three young children.
“I dress differently now to the way I dressed in 1996. Then, women wore skirts with matching jackets – an understood rather than required uniform. I remember asking whether it would be acceptable to wear trousers as part of a suit! At that time, I would not have wanted to stand out. But change began in the early 2000s. Trainees today dress very well and are always quite glamorous – there’s no lack of femininity at work.
“I remember asking whether it would be acceptable to wear trousers as part of a suit! At that time, I would not have wanted to stand out.”
I don’t wear a suit every day. I like dresses, particularly wrap dresses, and would have no hesitation wearing a smart dress with a cardigan when meeting a client. But I don’t wear prints. If I had a particularly important meeting I would still wear a black suit. I think it’s important to look the part so people trust you. The most important thing is to dress appropriately for your shape, so I don’t wear skirts as I find them awkward. My favourite dress is a versatile black wrap dress bought in Orlando for $3o. With a pearl necklace, it takes me into evening.”
WHO: Myra Garrett
WHAT: Managing partner & corporate M&A partner at William Fry
“When I qualified as a lawyer in 1988, women only wore skirt suits. I remember how one woman wore trousers and the ripple it caused at the time! The conservative nature of our profession, once reflected in our dress, is changing now. How you dress also depends on the specific area in which you work. If you are in litigation and appearing in court regularly, you are more constrained. Those in transactional types of roles have more flexibility.
“Lawyers spend a lot of time at their desks and need to feel comfortable yet look smart and approachable. Dress shouldn’t affect your performance, but it can – if you are well dressed you feel more confident and are better received, so it does have an impact on how you perform. How you dress can also show your client another side of your personality.
“The conservative nature of our profession, once reflected in our dress, is changing now. How you dress also depends on the specific area in which you work.”
“The big challenge is time. My track record with internet shopping isn’t great – sizes don’t fit and I have to return items. If I’m travelling and see clothes that fit, I buy. I like classic dresses. I think Irish designers understand the challenges posed by the role. I wear tailored pieces by Louise Kennedy and I also like Jen Kelly and Heidi Higgins. I recently bought a Victoria Beckham dress at Brown Thomas. I wear colour, pink in particular, as well as royal blue and orange. Colour can always be toned down with a black jacket or a coloured jacket worn to brighten up black. I wish we were all as glamorous as Amal Alamuddin, but as lawyers we focus more on the day job and less on projecting an image.”
The Power of Style
Seemingly unattainable: feminine and formidable
Professor of Law at Yale, Amy Chua was born in 1962, the Chinese Year of the Tiger which, along with her formidable work ethic and her polished dress sense, makes her “powerful, authoritative and magnetic”. Chua’s second book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, revealed her ruthless-to-some methods of child-rearing to international outrage (though many observers grudgingly admitted that Western parents could learn a thing or two.) Accused of being too driven, she is as industrious about her wardrobe and grooming as she is about everything else, believing that to be as good as you can be, you need to feel it and look it too. Her signature style is feminine: dresses, heels, simple adornment. She speaks to readers of The Gloss at Look the Business on October 22.
A lawyer, formerly a high-ranking minister in the French cabinet and now at the helm of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, 58, once famously told female lawyers in legal firm Baker & McKenzie: “Don’t try to imitate the boys. Be yourselves and support each other.” Photographed constantly among groups of men, Lagarde always stands out and not just because she is often the only woman but because she has presence: slim, tall, ever poised and calm, and patriotically attired in Chanel and Hermès. She attributes her stamina and ability to smile at the end of the toughest day of negotiations to her training in synchronised swimming: “That taught me, grit your teeth and smile.” Her silver bob, chic skirt suits and her way with accessories – particularly scarves – are important tools in her armoury.
Accomplished international lawyer (Oxford and NYU), 36-year-old Amal Alamuddin, has represented clients before the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. An adviser to Kofi Annan, she also represented Julian Assange and is a writer and lecturer on international criminal law. Not for her the matching suits and boring pumps legal uniform of London chambers, the British-Lebanese beauty and bride of George Clooney wears colour – though always with a sleeve – and her hair down at work. Her photograph on her employer’s website has her wearing a rather fab black dress that could pass muster at both legal hearing or cocktail party.